Journey To A War by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1939)

When we awoke early next morning the train was crossing a wide valley of paddy fields. The rising sun struck its beams across the surfaces of innumerable miniature lakes; in the middle distance farmhouses seemed actually to be floating on water. Here and there a low mound rose a few feet above the level of the plain, with a weed-grown, ruinous pagoda, standing upon it, visible for miles around. Peasants with water-buffaloes were industriously ploughing their arable liquid into a thick, brown soup.
(Journey To A War, p.191)

Collectively, perhaps, we most resemble a group of characters in one of Jules Verne’s stories about lunatic English explorers. (p.104)

The Sino-Japanese War

In July 1937 – exactly a year after the start of the Spanish Civil War – Japan attacked China. It was hardly a surprise. In 1931 the so-called ‘Mukden Incident’ had helped spark the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (the large area to the north east of China, just above Beijing). The Chinese were defeated and Japan created a new puppet state, Manchukuo (setting up the last Qing emperor as its puppet ruler) through which to rule Manchuria.

Going further back, in 1894–1895 China, then still under the rule of the Qing dynasty, was defeated by Japan in what came to be called the First Sino-Japanese War. China had been forced to cede Taiwan to Japan and to recognise the independence of Korea which had, in classical times, been under Chinese domination.

In other words, for 40 years the rising power of militaristic, modernising Japan had been slowly nibbling away at rotten China, seizing Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria. Now the military junta in Tokyo decided the time was right to take another bite, engineered an ‘incident’ at the Marco Polo bridge on the trade route to Beijing, and used this as a pretext to attack Beijing in the north and Shanghai in the south.

Thus there was quite a lot of military and political history to get to grips with in order to understand the situation in China, but what made it even more confusing was the fact that China itself was a divided nation. First, the nominal government – the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang under its leader Chiang Kai-shek – had only with difficulty put down or paid off the powerful warlords who for decades had ruled local regions of China after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

But second, Chiang faced stiff competition from the Chinese Communist Party. The two parties had lived in uneasy alliance until Chiang staged a massacre of communists in Shanghai in 1927 which brought the tension between Chinese nationalists and communists into the open.

It was the three-way destabilisation of China during this period – warlords v. Nationalists v. Communists – which had helped Japan invade and take over Manchuria. Prompted by the 1937 Japanese attack the Nationalists and Communists formed an uneasy alliance.

Auden in Spain

Meanwhile, back in Europe, the great political issue of the age was the Spanish Civil War which began when General Franco led a military uprising against the democratically elected government in July 1936. Like many high-minded, middle class liberals, Auden and Isherwood both felt the time had come to put their money where their mouths were. Auden did actually travel to Spain in January 1937 and was there till March, apparently trying to volunteer to drive an ambulance in the medical service. Instead, red tape and the communists who were increasingly running the Republican forces apparently blocked him from getting a useful job. He tried to help out at the radio station but discovered its broadcasts were weak and there were no vacancies.

Frustrated and embarrassed, Auden was back in England by mid-March 1937. The long-term impact of the trip was his own surprise at how much it upset him to see the churches of Barcelona which had all been torched and gutted by a furious radical populace as symbols of oppression. Auden was shocked, and then shocked at his reaction. Wasn’t he meant to be a socialist, a communist even, like lots of other writers of his generation? The Spain trip was the start of the slow process of realisation which was to lead him back to overt Christian faith in the 1940s.

Also Auden saw at first hand the infighting on the Republican side between the communist party slavishly obeying Stalin’s orders, and the more radical Trotskyite and Anarchist parties who, later in 1937, it would crush. Later he paid credit to George Orwell’s book Homage To Catalonia for explaining the complex political manoeuvring far better than he could have. But watching the Republicans fight among themselves made him realise it was far from being a simple case of black and white, of Democracy against Fascism.

So by March 1938 Auden had returned to Britain, where he was uncharacteristically silent about his experiences, and got on with writing, editing new works for publication (not least an edition of his play The Ascent of F6 and Letters From Iceland).

Meanwhile, Christopher Isherwood was living in Paris managing his on-again, off-again relationship with his German boyfriend Heinz. And although he had accommodated Auden on an overnight stop in the French capital and waved him off on the train south to Spain, Isherwood hadn’t lifted a finger for the Great Cause.

Then, in June 1937, Auden’s American publisher, Bennet Cerf of Random House, had suggested that after the reasonable sales of his travel book about Iceland, maybe Auden would be interested in writing another travel book, this time travelling to the East. Isherwood was a good suggestion as collaborator because they had just worked closely on the stage play, The Ascent of F6 and had begun work on a successor, which was to end up becoming the pay On The Frontier. The pair were considering the travel idea when the Japanese attacked China, quickly took Beijing and besieged Shanghai.

At once they seized on this as the subject of the journey and the book. Neither had really engaged with the war in Spain; travelling east would be a way to make amends and to report on what many people considered to be the Eastern Front of what was developing into a worldwide war between Fascism (in this case Japan) and Democracy (in this case the Chinese Nationalists).

China also had the attraction that, unlike Spain, it wouldn’t be stuffed full of eminent literary figures falling over themselves to write poems and plays and novels and speeches. Spain had been a very competitive environment for a writer. Far fewer people knew or cared about China: it would be their own little war.

And so Auden and Isherwood left England in January 1938, boat from Dover then training it across France, then taking a boat from Marseilles to Hong Kong, via Egypt, Colombo and Singapore.

Journey to a War

Journey To A War is not as good as Letter From Iceland, it’s less high spirited and funny. There isn’t a big linking poem like Letter To Lord Byron to pull it together, and there isn’t the variety of all the different prose and verse forms Auden and MacNeice cooked up for the earlier book.

Instead it overwhelmingly consists of Isherwood’s very long prose diary of what happened to them and what they saw in their three months journey around unoccupied China.

The book opens with a series of sonnets and this was the form Auden chose to give the book poetic unity – sonnets, after all, lend themselves to sequences which develop themes and ideas, notably the Sonnets of Shakespeare, or his contemporaries Spencer and Sidney. There’s a collection of half a dozen of them right at the start, which give quick impressions of places they visited en route to China (Macau, Hong Kong). Then, 250 pages of Isherwood prose later, there’s the sonnet sequence titled In Time of War.

But instead of the bright and extrovert tone of Letters From Iceland, Auden’s sonnets are often obscure. They are clearly addressing some kind of important issues but it’s not always clear what. This is because they are very personal and inward-looking. Auden is clearly wrestling with his sense of liberal guilt. The results are rather gloomy. Spain had disillusioned him immensely. He went to Spain thinking the forces of Evil were objective and external. But his first-hand experience of the internecine bickering on the Republican side quickly showed him there is no Good Side, there are no Heroes. History is made by all of us and so – all of us are to blame for what happens. Travel as far as you want, you’re only running away from the truth. If we want to cure the world, it is we ourselves that we need to cure first.

Where does this journey look which the watcher upon the quay,
Standing under his evil star, so bitterly envies,
As the mountains swim away with slow calm strokes
And the gulls abandon their vow? Does it promise a juster life?

Alone with his heart at last, does the fortunate traveler find
In the vague touch of a breeze, the fickle flash of a wave,
Proofs that somewhere exists, really, the Good Place,
Convincing as those that children find in stones and holes?

No, he discovers nothing: he does not want to arrive.
His journey is false, his unreal excitement really an illness
On a false island where the heart cannot act and will not suffer:
He condones his fever; he is weaker than he thought; his weakness is real…

(from The Voyage by W.H. Auden)

‘An illness on a false island’ which is clearly England, a place ‘where the heart cannot act’. The traveller is trying to escape himself but cannot and glumly realises ‘he is weaker than he thought’. Or the thumping final couplet of the sonnet about Hong Kong:

We cannot postulate a General Will;
For what we are, we have ourselves to blame.

Isherwood’s diary

Luckily, the prose sections of the book are written by Isherwood and these are much more fun. He keeps up the giggling schoolboy persona of the novel he’d recently published, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935), he notes the way the Chinese pronounce their names Au Dung and Y Hsaio Wu, he sounds wide-eyed and optimistic. He hadn’t seen what Auden had seen in Spain, wasn’t struggling with the same doubts.

On February 28 1938 they leave Hong Kong by steamer for Canton and Isherwood finds everyone and everything hilarious. Look a Japanese gunboat! Listen, the sound of bombs falling! He has same facility for the disarmingly blunt image which he deploys in the Berlin stories. The mayor of Canton (Mr Tsang Yan-fu) is always beaming, has a face like a melon with a slice cut out of it. After dinner the Chinese general entertains them by singing Chinese opera, showing how different characters are given different tones and registers (‘the romantic hero emits a sound like a midnight cat’).

He refers to the whole trip as a dream and as a landscape from Alice in Wonderland – they expected Chinese people to behave as in a Gilbert & Sullivan opera and had rehearsed elaborate compliments, and are disarmed when they’re much more down to earth. The train journey on through Hunan province is boring, the tea tastes of fish, they amuse themselves by reading out an Anthony Trollope novel or singing in mock operatic voices.

But this sense of unreality which dogs them is simply because both of them didn’t have a clue what was going on, what was at stake, the military situation,  had never seen fighting or battle and weren’t proper journalists. They were privileged dilettantes, ‘mere trippers’, as Isherwood shamefacedly explains when they meet real war correspondents at a press conference (p.53).

In Hankow the Consul gives them Chiang, a middle-aged man with the manners of a perfect butler to be their guide. They attend the official war briefings alongside American and Australian journalists, they meet Mr Donald, Chiang Kai-shek’s military adviser, the German adviser General von Falkenhausen, Agnes Smedley, Madame Chiang Kai-shek herself, and with delight are reunited with Robert Capa, the soon-to-be legendary American war photographer who’d they’d met on the boat out. They attend traditional Chinese opera, which Isherwood observes with the eye of a professional playwright.

They catch the train to Cheng-chow which has been repeatedly bombed by the Japanese, capably looked after by their ‘boy’, Chiang. They are heading north on the train when they learn that Kwei-teh has fallen, nonetheless they decide to press on to Kai-feng. With them is an exuberant and seasoned American doctor, McClure, who takes them to watch some operations. They walk round the stinking foetid town. They go to the public baths which stink of urine. Then they catch a train to Sü-chow. And then onto Li Kwo Yi where they argue with Chinese commanding officers (General Chang Tschen) to allow them to go right up to the front line, a town divided by the Great Canal.

If you’ve no idea where any of these places are, join the club. I was reading an old edition but, even so, it had no map at all of any part of the journey. Which is ludicrous. The only map anywhere appears to have been on the front cover of the hardback edition, replaced (uselessly) by an anti-war cartoon on the paperback editions, and even this doesn’t show their actual route.

First US edition (publ. Random House)

With no indication where any of these places are, unless you are prepared to read it with an atlas open at your side, Isherwood’s long prose text becomes a stream of clever observations largely divorced from their context. Even an atlas is not that useful given that Isherwood uses the old form of the placenames, all of which, along with most people’s names, have changed. Thus Sian, capital of Shen-si province, is now Xian, capital of Shaanxi Province, Sü-chow is now Suzhou, and so on.

We are intended to enjoy the surreal aspects of travelling in a deeply foreign land – the village restaurant which was papered entirely with pages of American tabloid magazines, and so covered with photos of gangsters and revelations about fashionable divorcees (p.126); or the expensive hotel in Sian whose menu included ‘Hat cake’ and ‘FF potatoes’ (p.141). Beheading is a common punishment because the Chinese believe a body needs to be complete to enter the afterlife. They meet lots of tough and brave American missionaries, mostly from the American south.

Finally, back in Hankow (Hankou) they become part of polite society again, are invited to a party of Chinese intellectuals, a party given by the British admiral and consul, where they meet the legendary travel writer Peter Fleming and his actress wife Celia Johnson, the British ambassador Archibald Kerr, the American communist-supporting journalist, Agnes Smedley (p.156). Fleming pops up a lot later at their hotel in Tunki, and is too suave, handsome and self-assured to possibly be real.

Militarily, Journey To A War confirms the opinions of the modern histories of the war I’ve read, namely that the Nationalist side was hampered by corruption, bad leadership and, above all, lack of arms & ammunition. When they retook cities which had been under communist influence the Chiang’s Nationalists realised they needed some kind of ideology which matched the communists’ emphasis on a pure life and so, in 1934, invented the New Life Movement i.e. stricter morals, which Madame Chiang politely explains.

Isherwood notices the large number of White Russian exiles, often running shops, come down in the world. This reminds me of the Russian nanny J.G. Ballard had during his boyhood in 1930s Shanghai, as described in his autobiography Miracles of Life.

From pages 100 to 150 or so our intrepid duo had hoped to approach the front line in the north and had crept up to it in a few places, but ultimately refused permission to go further, to visit the Eighth Route Army, and so have come by boat back down the Yangtze River to Hankou. Now they plan to travel south-east towards the other main front, where the Japanese have taken Shanghai and Nanjing.

On the Emperor of Japan’s birthday there is a particularly large air-raid on Hankow and they make themselves comfortable on the hotel lawn to watch it. The Arsenal across the river takes a pasting and they go to see the corpses. 500 were killed. Nice Emperor of Japan.

They take a river steamer to Kiukiang and stay at the extraordinary luxury hotel named Journey’s End and run by the wonderfully eccentric Mr Charleton. They catch the train from Kiukiang to Nanchang, stay there a few days, then the train on to Kin-hwa (modern Jinhua). Here they are horrified to discover their arrival has been anticipated and they are treated like minor royalty, including a trip to the best restaurant in town with 12 of the city’s top dignitaries.

Auden and I developed a private game: it was a point of honour to praise most warmly the dishes you liked least. ‘Delicious,’ Auden murmured, as he munched what was, apparently, a small sponge soaked in glue. I replied by devouring, with smiles of exquisite pleasure, an orange which taste of bitter aloes and contained, at its centre, a large weevil. (p.195)

They are taken by car to the town of Tunki. They try to get permission to push on to see the front near the Tai Lake, They have to cope with the officious newspaperman, A.W. Kao. This man gives a brisk confident explanation of what’s happening at the front. Neither Auden nor Isherwood believe it. Isherwood’s explanation describes scenes they’ve seen on their visit, but also hints at what Auden might have seen on his (mysterious) trip to civil war Spain. Auden is given a speech defining the nature of modern war:

War is bombing an already disused arsenal, missing it and killing a few old women. War is lying in a stable with a gangrenous leg. War is drinking hot water in a barn and worrying about one’s wife. War is a handful of lost and terrified men in the mountains, shooting at something moving in the undergrowth. War is waiting for days with nothing to do; shouting down a dead telephone; going without sleep, or sex, or a wash. War is untidy, inefficient, obscure, and largely a matter of chance. (p.202)

Peter Fleming turns up looking gorgeous, professional, highly motivated, speaking good Chinese. He attends briefings, manages the locals with perfect manners. They organise an outing towards the front, with sedan chairs, bearers, two or three local notables (T.Y. Liu, A.W. Kao, Mr Ching, Major Yang, Shien), Fleming is indefatigable. On they plod to Siaofeng, Ti-pu and Meiki. Here the atmosphere is very restless, the miltary authorities are visibly unhappy to see them, half their own Chinese want to get away. The spend a troubled night, with people coming and going at the military headquarters where they’ve bivouaced and, after breakfast, they give in to the Chinese badgering, turn about, and retrace their steps. Twelve hours later the town of Meiki fell to the Japanese. On they plod up a steep hillside, carried by coolies, and down the precipitous other side, down to Tien-mu-shan and then by car to Yu-tsien (p.229).

We stopped to get petrol near a restaurant where they were cooking bamboo in all its forms – including the strips used for making chairs. That, I thought, is so typical of this country. Nothing is specifically either eatable or uneatable. You could being munching a hat, or bite a mouthful out of a wall; equally, you could build a hut with the food provided at lunch. Everything is everything. (p.230)

Isherwood hates Chinese food and, eventually, Auden agrees. At Kin-hwa Fleming leaves them. It’s a shame they’ve ended up getting on famously. It’s interesting that both Auden and Isherwood initially were against him because he went to Eton. The narcissism of minor differences knows no limits.

They say goodbye to all the people they’ve met in Kin-hwa and set off by bus for Wenchow. They take a river steamer from Wenchow to Shanghai.

Arrival in Shanghai on 25 May signals the end of their adventures. They stay in the chaotic, colourful, corrupt city till 12 June. Fascinating to think that over in his house in the International Settlement, young James Graham Ballard was playing with his toy soldiers, dreaming about flying and laying the grounds for one of the most distinctive and bizarre voices in post-war fiction.

And Isherwood confirms the strange, deliriously surreal atmosphere of a Chinese city which had been invaded and conquered by the Japanese, who had destroyed a good deal of the Chinese city but left the International and the French Settlements intact. They attend receptions at the British Embassy, are the guest of a British businessman hosting high-level Japs.

There is no doubt Auden and Isherwood hate the Japanese, can’t see the flag hanging everywhere without thinking about all the times in the past four months when they’ve ducked into cover as Japanese bombers rumbled overhead and fighters swooped to strafe the roads.

This is the only section of this long book with real bite. Isherwood interviews a British factory inspector who describes the appalling conditions Chinese workers endure and notes that they’ll all be made much worse by the Japanese conquerors.

Schoolboys

It’s a truism to point out that the Auden Generation was deeply marked by its experience of English public schools, but it is still striking to see how often the first analogy they reach for is from their jolly public schools, endless comparisons with school speeches and prize days and headmasters.

  • Under the camera’s eye [Chiang kai-shek] stiffened visibly like a schoolboy who is warned to hold himself upright (p.68)
  • Mission-doctors [we were told] were obliged to smoke in secret, like schoolboys (p.88)
  • They scattered over the fields, shouting to each other, laughing, turning somersaults, like schoolboys arriving at the scene of a Sunday school picnic (p.142)
  • The admiral, with his great thrusting naked chin… and the Consul-General, looking like a white-haired schoolboy, receive their guests. (p.156)
  • [Mr A.O. Kao] has a smooth, adolescent face, whose natural charm is spoiled by a perpetual pout and by his fussy school-prefect’s air of authority (p.201)
  • Producing a pencil, postulating our interest as a matter of course, he drew highroads, shaded in towns, arrowed troop movements; lecturing us like the brilliant sixth-form boy who takes the juniors in history while the headmaster is away. (p.200)
  • The cling and huddle in the new disaster
    Like children sent to school (p.278)
  • With those whose brains are empty as a school in August (p.291)

The photos

At the end of the huge slab of 250 pages of solid text, the book then had 31 pages of badly reproduced black and white photos taken by Auden. In fact there are 2 per page, so that’s 62 snaps in all.

I don’t think there’s any getting round the fact that they’re average to poor. Some are portraits of people they met, notably Chiang kai-shek and Madame Chiang, Chou en-lai of the communists, and celebrities such as Peter Fleming the dashing travel writer and Robert Capa the handsome war photographer. A dozen or more named people, Chinese, missionaries and so on. And then lots of anonymous soldiers and scenes, the dead from an air raid, the derailed steam train, coolies in poverty, a Japanese prisoner of war, a Japanese soldier keeping guard in Shanghai, Auden with soldiers in a trench and so on.

Remarkably, few if any of these seem to be online. I can’t imagine they’re particularly valuable and their only purpose would be to publicise the book and promote Auden and Isherwood’s writings generally, so I can’t imagine why the copyright holders have banned them. If I owned them, I’d create a proper annotated online gallery for students and fans to refer to.

In Time of War

The book then contains a sequence of 27 sonnets by Auden titled In Time of War. In later collections he retitled them Sonnets from China. They are, on the whole, tiresomely oracular, allegorical and obscure. The earlier ones seem to be retelling elements of the Bible, Genesis etc as if recapitulating the early history of mankind. These then somehow morph into the ills of modern society with its bombers.

But one of them stands out from the rest because it reports real details and rises to real angry eloquence.

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking; Dachau.

(Sonnet XVI from In Time of War)

Those last lines have stayed with me all my life. Nanking. Dachau. The darkness at the heart of the twentieth century.

Commentary

The last thing in the book is a long poem in triplets, from pages 289 to 301 and titled simply Commentary.

It’s a sort of rewrite of Spain, again giving a hawk’s eye view of history and society, the world and human evolution. It starts off describing what they’ve seen in Auden’s characteristic sweeping style, leaping from one brightly described detail to another, before wandering off to give snapshots of great thinkers from Plato to Hegel.

But at quite a few points voices emerge to deliver speeches. Then, on the last page, the Commentary becomes extremely didactic, ending with a speech by the Voice of Man, no less, the kind of speech he turned out by the score for his plays and choruses and earlier 1930s poems.

But in this context it seems inadequate to the vast and catastrophic war in China which they have just glimpsed, and which was to last for another seven years (till Japan’s defeat in 1945) and was itself followed by the bitter civil war (1945-48) which was only ended by the triumph of Mao Zedong’s communist party early in 1949.

The Japanese invasion of 1937 turned out to be just the start of a decade of terror and atrocity, and Auden’s response is to have the ‘Voice of Man’ preach:

O teach me to outgrow my madness.

It’s better to be sane than mad, or liked than dreaded;
It’s better to sit down to nice meals than nasty;
It’s better to sleep two than single; it’s better to be happy.

Ruffle the perfect manners of the frozen heart,
And once again compel it to be awkward and alive,
To all it suffered once a silent witness.

Clear from the head the masses of impressive rubble;
Rally the lost and trembling forces of the will,
Gather them up and let them loose upon the earth,

Till they construct at last a human justice,
The contribution of our star, within a shadow
Of which uplifting, loving, and constraining power
All other reasons may rejoice and operate.

It yet another of his prayers, deliberately personal in scale, addressed mostly to chums from public school, fellow poets, friendly dons and reviewers. It is calling on people who are already well-fed, well-educated and mostly decent chaps to be a bit more decent, if that’s alright. But ‘ruffling up your perfect manners’ wasn’t going to stop Franco or the Japs, Hitler or Stalin.

It is ironic of Auden to ask people to remove from their heads ‘impressive rubble’, which I take to mean the luggage of an expensive education in the arts – as that is precisely what he was going to use to make a living out of for the next 35 years and which was to underpin and inform all his later works.

And there are numerous small but characteristic examples of learnèd wit it here, such as when they light a fire which is so smokey that it forces them out of the room and Auden wittily remarks, ‘Better to die like Zola than Captain Scott’ (i.e. of smoke asphyxiation rather than from freezing).

In this respect the Commentary is another grand speech which, like the grand speeches in the plays he’d just written with Isherwood, was, in the end, addressed to himself. Once again, as with Spain, Auden has used a huge historical event to conduct a lengthy self-analysis.

Auden’s contemporary readers were impressed, as ever, by his style and fluency but, as ever, critical of his strange inability to engage with anything outside himself and, specifically, to rise to the occasion of such a massive historical event.

Half way through the text Isherwood tells a story about Auden’s complete conviction that the train they’re on won’t be shot at by the Japanese, whose lines they are going to travel very close to. Sure enough the train emerges on to a stretch of line where it is clearly visible from the forward Japanese lines, which they know to contain heavy artillery, and so they pass a few minutes of terror, petrified that the Japanese might start shelling any second. In the event, there is no shelling, and the train veers away to safety. ‘See. I told you so,’ says Auden, and Isherwood reflects that there’s no arguing with ‘the complacency of a mystic’.

It’s a joke at his old mate’s expense and yet I thought, yes – complacency – in Auden’s case complacency means undeviating confidence in his own mind and art to hold off, inspect and analyse. He creates a rhetoric of concern but it is nothing more than that, a poet’s rhetoric, fine to admire but which changes nothing.

And he knew this, had realised it during the trip to Spain, and had lost heart in the political verse of the 1930s. The pair returned from China via America, where all mod cons were laid on by his American publishers and Auden realised that here was a much bigger, richer, more relaxed, open, friendly and less politically pressurised environment in which to think and write.

He returned to England just long enough to wind up his affairs, pack his bags, then in January 1939 he and Isherwood sailed back to the States which would become his home for the next 30 years, and set about rewriting or suppressing many of his most striking poems from the troubled Thirties, trying to rewrite and then censor what he came to think of as his own dishonesty, pursuing a quest for his own personal version of The Truth.


Related links

1930s reviews

Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another by Jonathan Fenby (2006)

‘In politics one should be guided by the calculation of forces.’ (Stalin at Potsdam)

Alliance is a thorough, insightful and gripping account of the wartime meetings between ‘the Big Three’ Allied leaders – Roosevelt and Churchill and Stalin – which determined the course of the Second World War and set the stage for the Cold War which followed it.

In actual fact the three leaders in question only met face to face on two occasions:

  1. Tehran 28 November-1 December 1943
  2. Yalta, 4-11 February 1945

The third great power conference, Potsdam July 1945, took place after Roosevelt’s death (12 April 1945) and with his successor, former vice-president Harry Truman

There were quite a few meetings between just Roosevelt and Churchill:

  1. Placentia Bay, Canada – 8 to 11 August 1941 – resulting in the Atlantic Charter
  2. First Washington Conference (codename: Arcadia), Washington DC, 22 December 1941 to 14 January 1942
  3. Second Washington Conference, 19 to 25 June 1942
  4. Casablanca, 14 to 24 January 1943 – Roosevelt’s first mention of the policy of ‘unconditional surrender’
  5. First Quebec Conference – 17 to 24 August 1943 (codename: Quadrant)
  6. Third Washington Conference (codename: Trident), 12 to 25 May 1943
  7. First Cairo Conference (codename: Sextant) November 22 to 26, 1943, outlined the Allied position against Japan during World War II and made decisions about postwar Asia
  8. Second Cairo Conference, December 4 to 6, 1943
  9. Second Quebec Conference (codename: Octagon) September 12 to 16, 1944 – Churchill strongly disapproved of the Morgenthau Plan, but had to support it in exchange for $6 billion of Lend-Lease aid to Britain

I hadn’t realised that Churchill flew to Moscow not once, but twice, for one-on-one meetings with Stalin – which had some very rocky moments.

  1. Second Moscow Conference (codename: Bracelet) 12 to 17 August 1942 – Churchill stayed in State Villa No. 7 and, when he told Stalin Britain would not be launching a second front any time soon, Stalin became insulting, asking why the British were so frightened of the Germans. Churchill responded with details of Operation Torch – Anglo-American landings in North Africa designed to open up the Mediterranean, and increased bombing of German cities.
  2. Fourth Moscow Conference (codename: Tolstoy) 9 to 19 October 1944 – this was the meeting where Churchill and Stalin discussed percentages of influence in post-war European nations: Russia 90% in Romania, UK 90% in Greece, Yugoslavia 50/50, and so on.

(The First and Third Moscow conferences were meetings of foreign ministers only i.e. not directly including Churchill or Stalin.)

These top-level meetings are colourful and interesting, and Fenby covers them in minute detail, giving a blow-by-blow account of what was discussed at each of the conference sessions, on each of the days, but nonetheless, the actual conferences are like the tips of the iceberg. Nine-tenths of the book is about the exchanges of messages between the Big Three leaders, by cable and telegram and phone calls, the texts of various speeches and declarations, and the complex matrix of diplomatic missions and exchanges which took place at a lower level, with special envoys shuttling between the three countries, meeting their opposite numbers or conveying messages from one to the other.

Since almost everyone concerned seems to have left diaries of these meetings, plus the vast official record and countless press announcements, Fenby is able to quote liberally from all these sources in order to recreate the complex web of communications which defined the ever-shifting diplomatic relations between the three powers.

The book sticks closely to a chronological account of all the meetings and messages and slowly I began to realise it might more accurately described as a diplomatic history of the alliance. Or a History of Allied Diplomacy During World War Two. And I came to realise the book can be enjoyed on a number of levels:

Character studies of the Big Three

The opening chapter is a kind of prelude, giving vivid pen portraits of the Big Three leaders:

Winston Spencer Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain

The stories about Churchill are often funny and loveable. We learn that he liked to go to bed in silk pyjamas. If he had no meetings he stayed in bed till noon, reading all the papers. Time and again eye-witnesses describe him as an over-grown schoolboy, insisting on swimming naked off the coast on a trip to visit Roosevelt, on another occasion arriving at an American military display dressed in a romper suit with his topee brim turned up so that one reporter thought he looked like a small boy going down to the beach to dig a hole in the sand. En route to Yalta, Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, described him as looking like ‘a poor hot pink baby about to cry’ (p.351). After the Yalta conference ended, he ‘walked from room to room, genial and sprightly, like a boy let out of school’ (p.380). Unlike the two other leaders he appeared to have no sex drive whatsoever.

Winston Churchill and a baby in a pram

Spot the baby

Churchill drank like a fish – sherry for breakfast, wine with lunch, champagne, wine and brandy with dinner.

On a striking number of occasions he was naked – swimming in pools naked, on one occasion padding round the bomber flying him back from Moscow naked from the waist down, appearing half-naked in front of the Moscow ambassador (who, memorably, drew a sketch of the naked British PM), and once – allegedly – when staying at the White House, being caught by Roosevelt emerging naked from the bath and, unabashed, declaring, ‘The Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to conceal from the President of the United States.’

Driven to the newly liberated area around Remagen, Churchill, surrounded by photographers, was caught short and unzipped to have a pee, telling the gentleman of the press that this particular moment of their great victory was not to be recorded. In his diary Brooke records that he will never forget ‘the childish grin of intense satisfaction that spread over his face’ (quoted page 388). He comes across as the ultimate naughty schoolboy.

Churchill was also given to flights of schoolboy sentimentality; he easily broke into tears, especially about loyal and trusty servants.

  • ‘I love that man’, he told his daughter Sarah, about Roosevelt, with tears in his eyes. (p.224)
  • Telling Moran that night of the [Polish diplomatic leader’s] request to be dropped into his homeland [to die fighting the Nazis rather than acquiesce in a diplomatic sell-out to the Russians], Churchill had tears in his eyes. (p.330)

And, of course, reams of magniloquent speech emerged effortlessly from his well-stocked mind. All us Brits have been brought up on the key moments from his wartime speeches. But as the book goes on, you come to realise this could also be a weakness. I watched his ‘historic’ address to both Houses of Congress on YouTube and realised that, if the spell drops for a moment, it is possible to see Churchill as a pompous old windbag. During the Tehran Conference, at the end of 1943, Roosevelt is reported as tiring of Churchill’s relentless verbosity (p.236).

And old and tired – one eye-witness memorably described him as a tired old man who kept going by sheer will power alone. But the windbag element opens the door to understanding the strong anti-British feeling which was present at all levels of the American administration and society, and steadily increased as the war progressed. In a telling phrase, Fenby says that by the time of Yalta, Britain was much the most junior partner of the alliance and Churchill knew it. ‘Britain had lost its aura of 1940’ (p.353).

Franklin Delaware Roosevelt, President of the United States

It is quite a surprise to read so many of the senior staff who worked with Roosevelt describing him as a heartless SOB – that’s not at all how he comes over in the Pathé newsreels where he’s always laughing and joshing, but the eye-witnesses are 100% consistent.

The laughing and joshing is connected to another of Roosevelt’s characteristics, which was his conviction that he could talk round anyone with banter and good humour. This partly explains his relationship with Stalin. a) Roosevelt, being an optimistic, can-do American, couldn’t really conceive the depths of evil which Stalin represented. b) Roosevelt believed he could manage Stalin as he had managed so many apparently tough opponents in his long political career.

‘I know you will not mind my being brutally frank with you when I tell you that I think I can personally handle Stalin better than your Foreign Office or my State Department.’ (Roosevelt to Churchill)

What he thought he could do was to outwit Stalin as he had done with so many interlocutors. (Walter Lippmann, political commentator)

During the course of 1943 Roosevelt and Hopkins and their entourage became steadily more pro-Stalin and inclined to cold shoulder Churchill. Fenby records that some, more realistic, American diplomats resigned in protest at their boss’s wishful thinking about Soviet intentions and readiness to brush the show trials, gulags and famines under the carpet.

Franklin D. Roosevelt smiling from a car with cigarette holder in handf

Roosevelt trusted Stalin more than Churchill

Josef Stalin

It’s sometimes difficult to believe that a man as monstrous as Stalin ever lived and breathed and walked, let alone shook hands with the other two, made jokes and delivered gracious toasts. All the eye-witness accounts confirm that he was extremely practical and factual. He had three demands and he made them right from the start:

  • for Britain and America to send more arms and munitions to help the Red Army fighting the Germans
  • for Britain and America to open a second front as soon as possible i.e. invade France
  • after the war to have a guaranteed security zone or buffer comprising Poland and the Baltic states in Europe (the situation in China/Manchuria was more complicated but Stalin’s basic principle was easily applied here, too: he supported whichever solution gave Russia maximum security)

Uncle Joe often had a twinkle in his eye and charmed most of his guests. Only occasionally did the psychopath emerge. At one of the many drinks receptions and dinners accompanying the meetings, a Russian general was showing Kerr how to handle one of their tommy guns, when Stalin seized it and said, ‘Let me show you how a real politician behaves’, and made a mock gesture of machine gunning everyone else in the room. At Yalta, Roosevelt asked Stalin who the quiet man with the pince-nez was. Stalin saw the president was gesturing towards Beria and laughed, ‘Oh that’s our Himmler’ (p.369). When Churchill explained to Stalin that he might lose the upcoming British general election, as he was only the leader of a particular party, Stalin replied, ‘One party is much better’ (p.377).

Joseph Stalin sitting at a desk writing on documents, pipe in mouth

How many people was Stalin responsible for killing?

Character studies of their many subordinates

But the book is by no means only about the Big Three. There’s a also a huge amount of highly enjoyable gossip about the cohorts of advisers and diplomats and military men the Big Leaders were surrounded by. Here are quick sketches of some of them:

The Brits

  • Major Arthur Birse – Churchill’s Russian translator
  • Field Marshal Alan Brooke – Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and, as chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, was the foremost military advisor to Winston Churchill. He was nicknamed ‘Shrapnel’. In the 1950s his diaries were published which contained scathing criticisms of senior figures of the war, including Churchill. Brooke admired Stalin for his quick grasp of strategy and military reality – but still thought him a cold-hearted, mass murderer. He was a keen birdwatcher.
  • Sir Alexander Montagu George Cadogan, Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs from 1938 to 1946, kept extensive diaries which were later published.
  • Field Marshal Sir John Dill, May 1940 to December 1941 Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and in Washington, Senior British Representative on the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Though much admired by Americans as senior as George Marshall, Churchill did not like him, nicknamed him Dilly-Dally, and replaced him with Alan Brooke.
  • Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary from 1940 to 1945 – Churchill’s loyal lieutenant, principled, vain, self-centred
  • Edward Wood, Lord Halifax from 1941 to 1946 British Ambassador in Washington
  • Sir Archibald Clark Kerr – ambassador to China from 1938 to 1942, where he won the respect of Chiang Kai-shek; then ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1942 to 1946 where his tough approach and broken nose earned him the nickname, ‘the Partisan’.

The Americans

  • Averell Harriman – inherited $100 million from his father and was chosen to manage the massive Lend-Lease programme. US ambassador to the Soviet Union from October 1943 to January 1944. Had an affair with Winston Churchill’s son’s wife.
  • Harry Hopkins – gangling son of an Iowa saddle-maker who ended up becoming instrumental in Roosevelt’s New Deal scheme, and moved into the White House to become Roosevelt’s adviser throughout the war.
  • George Marshall – supremely capable Chief of Staff of the US Army, September 1939 to November 1945.
  • Cordell Hull – the longest-serving U.S. Secretary of State, 1933 to 1944, at daggers drawn with his junior, Sumner Welles, who he eventually got fired in 1943. Hull was the underlying architect of the United Nations. Eden described him as ‘the old man’. Cadogan referred to him as ‘the old lunatic’.
  • Sumner Welles – Under secretary of state 1937 to 1943: ‘the age of imperialism is ended’. Hull hated Welles and got him sacked when stories of his gay lifestyle began to leak to the press.
  • Henry L. Stimson – Secretary of War (1940 to 1945), principled grand old man in his 70s, he vehemently opposed the Morgenthau Plan, and kept a diary full of insights.

Americans in China

  • General Joseph Stilwell – in charge of some Chinese Nationalist forces, adviser to Chiang Kai-shek, supervisor of American lend-Lease to the Nationalists. Known as ‘Vinegar Joe’ he despised the British in India and Burma from the start, but came to loathe Chiang as he came to understand how Chiang’s policies ignored ideas like efficiency and were entirely based on paying bribes to, and keeping in place, administrators and senior soldiers who supported him. This explained the Nationalists’ woeful record at fighting. Stilwell took to referring to him as the Peanut (because of the shape of Chiang’s shaven skull).
  • Claire Chennault – retired from the US Air Force in 1937, Chennault went to China to work as freelance adviser to the Chinese Air Force. After Japan invaded Manchuria Chennault found himself becoming Chiang Kai-shek’s chief air adviser, training Chinese Air Force pilots, and setting up the so-called Flying Tigers.

Roosevelt wanted to replace Stilwell who, by 1943, hated the Chinese with a passion. But his Chief of Staff refused to accept the obvious replacement, Chennault, because he was outside the formal command structure and was far too close to Chiang. So nothing was done, one of several reasons why American policy in China was allowed to drift…

The Russians

  • Vyacheslav Molotov– USSR Foreign Minister. Molotov is a pseudonym like Stalin, it means ‘hammer’. According to witnesses Molotov was completely inflexible, unbending, unyielding.
  • Ivan Maisky – USSR Ambassador to Britain 1932 to 1943.
  • Maxim Litvinov – Soviet ambassador to Washington 1941 to 1943.

The French

  • Charles de Gaulle – leader of the Free French. A relatively junior officer in the French Army, de Gaulle escaped the German invasion and on 18 June made a radio appeal from London to the French to resist the occupiers. He was a legend in his own mind, remplis with a particularly Gallic form of arrogance and hauteur, and eventually managed to convince the French nation of his historic uniqueness. But it is very funny to read how powerless he was in the context of the Great Powers, and how he was routinely ignored by all sides as irrelevant. Churchill was, in fact, generally respectful – we had fought side by side the French during the German invasion of 1940. I’d forgotten that Roosevelt hated de Gaulle with a passion. He was convinced de Gaulle was a dictator-in-waiting in exactly the same mould as Mussolini.

The Americans dislike the Free French

Even after the United States declared war on Germany (11 December 1941), it was only the beginning of what turned into a very long haul. Fenby quotes Charles de Gaulle who, on hearing the news of Pearl Harbour, declared (with typically French brio/arrogance) that the war was won, it was only a matter of time. Obviously almost everyone who was going to die over that matter of time was going to be Russian, American and British. It is heart-warming to read how much Roosevelt and the Americans disliked the Free French under de Gaulle. At Yalta, Roosevelt said the Americans would only give the French a sector of Germany to run ‘out of kindness’. Stalin concurred. Both men obeyed the well-known dictum:

Bad-mouthing the French always has its appeal. (p.358)

De Gaulle was furious at not being invited to the Yalta Conference – despite the fact that the three participants gifted France control of a sector of post-war Germany which they had done nothing to ear. In a typically high-handed gesture, de Gaulle cancelled a post-conference meeting that had been arranged with Roosevelt. The president really lost his temper and drafted a flaming reply criticising not only de Gaulle but the entire French nation until his translator, career diplomat Charles ‘Chip’ Bohlen agreed that de Gaulle was ‘one of the biggest sons of bitches who ever straddled a pot’. This amused Roosevelt who calmed down and set his diplomats to working on a much toned-down reply.

Like a novel

So this 400-page book is a bit like a 19th century novel. You are formally introduced to each new character, with pen portraits, other people’s descriptions, titbits about their private lives and professional achievements. Then settle in to watch the cast assemble, disperse, meet, take notes, observe each other and generally interact. By half-way through, when Fenby describes a meeting involving Eden, Hopkins, you have a good idea of what they all looked like, where they were coming from, and what to expect.

Big ideas

So much for the gossip, but there’s also plenty of through-provoking stuff about the geopolitics.

I find it fascinating, reading about any war, to learn how war aims change and evolve during a prolonged conflict. History – the passage of time – simplifies everything to black and white, whereas at the time, the leaders of the allied powers were working amid a blizzard of conflicting aims and goals, on at least four levels:

  • the leaders of the big three nations (USA, Britain, USSR) disagreed among themselves, and as the war progressed, frequently changed their minds
  • their advisers often strongly disagreed with their leaders, and also amongst themselves
  • in the democracies, the opposition political parties and voices in the press and other commentators often strongly disagreed with government policy
  • and underlying all this human froth was the deep, enduring reality of geography and the geopolitical priorities which that entails

It makes for a fascinating maze, a kind of four-dimensional chess, which Fenby confidently steers us through, often with a wry smile on his face.

Stalin wanted arms and Russian security

To take the last one first, Stalin knew what he wanted and he largely got it. It is bracing to read the eye-witness accounts of the western diplomats who met and admired him. They knew he was a dictator, some were repelled by his history of brutality, but all admired the clarity and conviction of his thinking. When the war was over, Stalin wanted to ensure he had SECURITY in the West and the East. From the get-go he wanted to ensure a geographical buffer to protect Russia from any further attack from East or West. His methods were brutal and disregarded all humanitarian values, but he had the advantage of being absolutely clear about his aims. And he achieved them. In 1942 he asked for control of the Baltic states and Poland to provide his buffer, and this request caused quite a serious rift between Britain (who wanted to agree in order to pen Russia in) and America (who rejected all plans, pacts and alliances, and was committed to giving every nation its ‘freedom’). In the event, Stalin extended his buffer zone half-way across Europe to take half of Germany.

And in the Far East, as I’ve just read in Fenby’s excellent history of China, this simple priority – security – explains why Stalin initially allied with the right-wing Kuomintang against Mao’s communists. Stalin would deal with whoever seemed able to provide security to the USSR, and the Kuomintang were, in 1945 anyway, the strongest power in China, once the Japanese had surrendered.

But Stalin had two more-immediate concerns which he hammered away at repeatedly:

  1. More arms – he wanted the allies to send him much, much more arms and munitions to help the Red Army fight the Germans who – be it remembered – advanced up to the outskirts of Moscow, up to the river Don and deep into the Caucasus.
  2. Second Front – he wanted Britain and America to invade France as soon as possible, a demand he kept up in every conversation and exchange throughout all of 1942 and 1943 and into 1944.

Winston Churchill wanted to preserve the British Empire

This threw up all kinds of problems around the current and future economic and political organisation of the British Empire which took up a lot of Churchill’s time and energy and that of the other conservative politicians around him – concerns about the preferential trading system within the Empire and Commonwealth, which now seems as remote as the Corn Laws – as well as the responsibility of trying to secure and police an extremely farflung set of territories, which beset the British chiefs of staff.

In the end, it was a failure. Fresh in my mind is J.G. Ballard’s eye-witness account in his three autobiographies of the seismic impact the loss of Singapore (15 February 1942) had on the British Empire in the East. It lost face forever. It was seen as defeatable. Everyone realised its days were numbered. In the event, Britain gave independence to India in 1947 just two years after the war ended, and over the next fifteen years the rest of the British Empire unravelled.

And all this – the collapse of the British Empire – comes to seem increasingly obvious when you read this book and see how utterly, helplessly dependent the British government and empire and, Churchill personally, were on the Americans – and then to read in detail, with extended quotes, Roosevelt’s cast-iron opposition to the British Empire.

Arguably, Churchill deluded himself about American intentions. Rather like Kipling, he deludedly saw the young United States coming under the tutelage of the wise and mature British Empire to organise a post-war world in which both would exercise the White Man’s Burden to tutor the native peoples of the world to democracy and statecraft.

Churchill thought the Anglo nations would need to be united in order to contain a Soviet Union which he early on realised would try to extend its influence deep into Europe. Whereas Churchill was rudely dismissive of China, which had displayed nothing but weakness under its despotic but inefficient Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. (Stalin, it is interesting to note, was just as dismissive of Chiang’s regime and insisted he not be invited to the Big Three meeting at Tehran.)

Roosevelt wanted a post-imperial world of free nations

If Stalin’s central and inflexible obsession was about gaining SECURITY for Russia, America’s was the idealistic notion that, when the war ended, all the old empires and old alliances and old European ideas about ‘balances of power’ – the kind of complex alliances which had triggered the First World War and failed to avoid the Second – would be abandoned for all time and be replaced by a comity of free nations engaged in free trade under the aegis of global governing bodies (the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund). In this world order about four major states would be the top players – US, Britain, USSR, China – and Britain would be one, but only one, among many.

Churchill thought the Brits and the Americans were fighting to overthrow the tyrannies of Germany and Japan, and hoped that afterwards extended American power would mesh with a rejuvenated British Empire to promote Anglo-Saxon ideas of law and justice. But the Americans disagreed: they saw themselves as overthrowing all the European empires and establishing principles of democracy and free trade throughout the world. Roosevelt is repeatedly quoted telling trusted advisers (specially Harry Hopkins, and also Roosevelt’s son, Elliott) that Churchill was wilfully misunderstanding him.

‘I can’t believe that we can fight a war against fascist slavery, and at the same time not work to free people all over the world from a backward colonial policy? The peace cannot include any continued despotism… Equality of peoples involves the utmost freedom of competitive trade.’ (Roosevelt to Churchill)

‘I’ve tried to make it clear to Winston – and the others – that, while we’re their allies and in it to victory by their side, they must never get the idea that we’re in it just to help them hang on to the archaic, medieval Empire ideas… Great Britain signed [sic] the Atlantic Charter. I hope they realise the United States Government means to make them live up to it.’ (Roosevelt to his son, Elliott)

The Morgenthau Plan

One of the key issues to emerge during 1944 was how to treat Germany after the war. Fenby goes into great detail about the Morgenthau Plan named after Henry Morgenthau, US Secretary of the Treasury, which planned to hammer Germany, permanently dividing it into smaller states and stripping it of all industrial capacity, denuding the Ruhr industrial heartland, and returning it to a pastoral, agricultural society for the foreseeable future.

Fenby brings out how some of the vengefulness of the plan stemmed from the Jewish ethnicity of Morgenthau and his even more extreme deputy, Harry Dexter White, who was also Jewish. (This was widely recognised at the time:  Secretary of State Henry Stimson described the Morgenthau Plan as ‘Semitism gone wild for vengeance’ and ‘a crime against civilisation’.) As both men learned more about the Holocaust (initially a top secret known only to the administration) it didn’t soften their determination to destroy Germany. Morgenthau estimated his model of a deindustrialised Germany would support about 60% of the current population; the other 40% would starve to death. Roosevelt told his cabinet that Germany should only be allowed only a ‘subsistence level’ of food. If a lot of Germans starved to death – tough.

By contrast, Churchill, when he was presented with the Morgenthau Plan at the Second Quebec Conference in September 1944, was extremely reluctant to agree with it and fought to water down its provisions. This was because Churchill could already see, with a clarity the Morgenthau backers (including Roosevelt) lacked, that the immediate post-war problem would not be Germany but Russia, which was gearing up to conquer half of Europe.

Completely contrary to the Morgenthau Plan, Churchill correctly predicted that a revitalised and economically strong Germany would be vital a) to resist Russian encroachment b) to revive the European economy as a whole.

There was another, more pressing aspect to the Morgenthau Plan. When details were leaked to the press in September 1944, it had a damaging impact on the war effort.

  1. Goebbels leapt on it, making much of the Jewish heritage of its author, and was able to depict it as evidence of the global Jewish conspiracy against Germany which he and Hitler had been warning about for a generation (p.319).
  2. More significantly, US military figures as senior as George Marshall claimed the plan significantly stiffened German opposition, and directly led to the deaths of American soldiers. Roosevelt’s son-in-law Lieutenant-Colonel John Boettiger worked in the War Department and claimed the Morgenthau Plan was ‘worth thirty divisions to the Germans’.

In the longer term, the Morgenthau ideas of reducing German industrial output and deliberately impoverishing the German population turned out to be impractical and counter-productive. During the years of the Occupation, from summer 1945 onwards, it became clear that Germany was the economic and industrial heartland of Europe and that impeding its recovery would condemn the entire continent to poverty. Plus, preventing the Germans from producing their own goods threw the burden of supplying even the basic necessities of life onto the American forces on the ground, who quickly realised how impractical this was.

Just a year after the war, the Morgenthau Policy was comprehensively overthrown in a famous speech titled Restatement of Policy on Germany delivered by James F. Byrnes, US Secretary of State, in Stuttgart on September 6, 1946, which became known as the ‘Speech of Hope’.

After the war it became known that Harry Dexter White, although never himself a communist, had been passing classified information to the Soviet Union, enough for him to be given a codename by his Soviet ‘handlers’. Called before the House Unamerican Activities committee in 1948, White denied being a communist. Shortly after testifying he had a heart attack and a few days later died, aged just 55, apparently of an overdose.

And so White’s enthusiastic support of the Morgenthau Plan could be reinterpreted as aiding the Soviets by ensuring Germany was rendered utterly powerless after the war. A great deal of debate still surrounds White’s role. Stepping back, you can see how the story of the Morgenthau Plan crystallises the complex, overlapping nexuses of geopolitics, economics, ethnicity and conflicts between the supposed Allies, and the conflicts within the administration of the most powerful of the three powers, the United States.

Sick men

All three were sick men. Several eye-witnesses testify how sick Churchill was and how he only kept himself going by sheer willpower. But the facade crumbled after the Tehran Conference. Churchill was exhausted when he flew back from Persia to Cairo, and by the time he’d taken an onward flight to Tunis to meet General Eisenhower, he was almost too weak to walk, and, upon arrival, was confined to a villa where doctors discovered he had pneumonia. Churchill’s fever worsened and then he had a heart attack. His personal physician thought he was going to die.

It is amazing that, with rest and injections of the new-fangled drug penicillin, he not only made a full recovery, but after a week was full of energy, firing off messages to the Cabinet in London, to Stalin and Roosevelt and worrying about the next stage of the military campaign to take Italy. And little short of mind-boggling that he went on to live for another 21 years.

And of course Roosevelt also was a very ill man. In March 1944, shortly after his 62nd birthday, he underwent testing at Bethesda Hospital and was found to have high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease causing angina pectoris, and congestive heart failure. Fenby explains Roosevelt had a cluster of symptoms nowadays referred to as post-polio syndrome (p.280). He went to the estate of a rich friend in South Carolina and ended up staying four weeks, sleeping a lot, cutting down on his chain-smoking and trying to drink less booze. But he never regained his former ‘pep’.

The most revealing symptom of this – and typical of Fenby’s semi-humorous, gossipy touch – was that the President stopped tinkering with his beloved stamp collection, up till then his favourite way of unwinding last thing at night. His personal physician, Admiral Ross McIntire, created a daily schedule that banned business guests for lunch and incorporated two hours of rest each day. But when he returned to Washington, witnesses testify that from that point onwards he was a good deal more flippant and ill-informed. At meetings he lacked focus, increasingly telling rambling anecdotes about his forebears. Churchill thought him no longer the man he had been.

Choosing the vice-president

It beggars belief that this crippled and deeply ill man determined to run for president a record-breaking fourth time and spent a lot of 1944 criss-crossing his huge nation making election speeches. The election was held on 7 November 1944 and Roosevelt won 53.4% of the popular vote and 432 out of the 531 electoral votes. He had campaigned in favour of a strong United Nations, so his victory symbolised support for the nation’s future participation in the international community (unlike the isolationism which swept America at the end of the First World War).

Roosevelt wanted to retain his vice-president, Henry Wallace. A contingent of the Democratic party wanted the Southern Democrat Harry Byrd. Roosevelt was persuaded to nominate a compromise candidate, Harry S Truman from Missouri. Did many people at the time realise what a momentous choice this would turn out to be?

And am I the only person who noticed that all three contenders for the vice-presidency were named Harry?

One way of thinking about the Yalta Conference in February 1945, is that Stalin dragged a very ill man half-way round the world and then, backed by his henchman Molotov, was able to run rings round him. Roosevelt no longer seemed to take in information, or push for solid agreements. His doctor thought his brain was going and gave him only months to live.

Roosevelt clings to Stalin till the last moment

I hadn’t realised the extent to which the Roosevelt administration became so utterly pro-Soviet, and increasingly anti-British. All discussions about helping Britain after the war with loans were tempered by concern that Britain would rise to become a major economic rival of the US. It came as a big surprise to Roosevelt and his economic advisers when Churchill bluntly told them that Britain was broke, and would go bankrupt without major economic assistance (p.305)

In the last hundred pages Roosevelt’s administration starts gearing up for the presidential campaign of 1944, and for the first time you really hear about his Republican opponents, and suddenly realise that there was a great deal of domestic opposition throughout Roosevelt’s presidency to everything he stood for – from Republicans who opposed the state socialism of the New Deal, to isolationists who fought tooth and nail to keep America out of the war, and then to an array of political figures and commentators who accused Roosevelt’s Democrats of being far too supportive to the Communist mass-murderer, Stalin, and not supportive enough of the right-wing Nationalist government of China under Chiang Kai-shek. Reading this book, it’s easy to sympathise with these last two points.

In this context Fenby goes into detail of the diplomatic toing and froing surrounding the Warsaw Rising – not the fighting itself, but the increasingly desperate attempts of the Polish government in exile to get the Allies to support the rising, the repeated requests made by Roosevelt and Churchill to Stalin to get the Red Army – which had halted its advance only 50 kilometres from the Polish capital – to intervene, or to get permission to land and fly Western planes from Ukrainian airfields to drop supplies to the Polish resistance.

All of which Stalin refused and stonewalled. It suited him to have the entire Free Polish Resistance massacred by the Germans, clearing the way for the puppet communist government which he planned to put in place. Afterwards the Americans and Churchill fell in with Stalin’s obvious lies that it was military shortages which prevented the Red Army from intervening. Only the tough-minded George Kennan felt the West should have had a full-fledged showdown with Russia about it.

Same with the Katyn Massacre – in which some 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia were executed by the Soviet Union, specifically the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) in April and May 1940. The Nazis discovered the burial site and publicised it in 1943, but Stalin resolutely denied all responsibility and claimed it was a Nazi atrocity – and Britain and America, once again, went along with his lies, for the sake of alliance unity.

The Cold War

Maybe it was appropriate that Roosevelt died just as the war ended. Every day made it plainer that the Soviets were going to ignore all promises and do whatever it took to impose communist governments across Eastern Europe, most notably in Poland whose governance was a running sore between the three ‘allies’ from the start of 1945. Right to the end Roosevelt hoped that, if he ignored this or that broken promise or atrocity by Stalin, the dictator would adhere to the main agreements.

Maybe it was appropriate that Roosevelt died and a new, simpler but arguably tougher man took over, Harry Truman, who was plunged into managing the future of the world as the greatest war in history came to a close. Truman had no idea relations with Moscow had become so rocky. And he hadn’t been told about the atom bomb. Can you imagine the awesome burden which suddenly landed on his shoulders!

In some ways the last 20 pages of the book are the most interesting: with the war in Europe over, Churchill – as Roosevelt predicted – became yesterday’s man. An exhausted Britain looked to the future and elected the Labour government with a landslide in July 1945. Roosevelt was dead and Truman replaced him as president with a completely new remit, sacking former advisers (for example, briskly dismissing Morgenthau while Roosevelt’s most loyal adviser, Harry Hopkins, retired), very much his own man from the start. The Labour Party leader Clement Attlee replaced Churchill. And on August 6 the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. On 14 August Japan surrendered, bringing the world war to an end.

A new era had dawned – but Fenby’s highly detailed, fascinating and gripping account helps the reader understand how the outlines of what became known as the Cold War had been established long before the shooting stopped.


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The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2nd edition, 2013)

Westerners bore some blame for China’s plight, but the prime cause lay in the empire itself and its rulers. (p.94)

The bloodshed! The murders! The killings! The massacres! The public beheadings! The drownings! The executions! The torture! The mass rapes! The famines! The cannibalism! It’s a miracle China exists after so much death and destruction.

This is a huge book with 682 pages of text and on every page there are killings, murders, massacres, pogroms, famines, floods, executions, purges and liquidations. 150 years of murder, massacre and mayhem. It is a shattering and gruelling book to read.

An estimated 20 million died in the Taiping Rebellion which dragged on from 1850 to 1871. 20 million! Maybe 14 million died in the 8-year-war against Japan 1937-45. And then maybe as many as 45 million died during the chaotic thirty-year misrule of Chairman Mao!!!!

Throw in the miscellaneous other rebellions of the Taiping era (the Nian Rebellion, 100,000+ killed and vast loss of property), the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 (about 100,000 civilians and soldiers dead), the chaos of the Warlord Era (1916-28), immense losses during the long civil war between Nationalists and Communists (1927-49), and Fenby comes up with the commonly accepted figure that between 1850 and 1980 around 100 million Chinese died unnatural or unnecessary deaths.

100 million! The sheer scale of the killing, the torture and executions and butchery and burnings and beheadings and starving to death and burying alive is difficult to comprehend, and also difficult to cope with. Several times I lay the book down because I was so sickened by the butchery. Contemporary China is soaked in the blood of its forefathers as no other country on earth.

Here’s a few examples from just the opening pages:

  • In 1850 Han officials massacred tens of thousands of Muslims in remote Yunnan (p.18)
  • When the Taiping army reached the Wuhan cities in 1851, it massacred the inhabitants. When it took Nanjing it ‘systematically butchered’ all the Manchu inhabitants (p.20)
  • The mandarin in charge of putting down the revolt in Canton boasted of having beheaded over 100,000 rebels and only lamented he couldn’t exterminate the entire class (p.22)
  • When the Xianfeng emperor died in 1861 he left the throne to a minor. A regency council was formed by a senior censor, Sushun. He was outwitted by the former emperor’s concubine Cixi, and was beheaded (the original plan had been to skin him alive) and two allied princes allowed to hang themselves. (p.24) Can you imagine anything remotely similar happening at the court of Queen Victoria? Skinning alive?
  • 13 days after the death of the emperor, a gentry army took the river port of Anqing. The river was full of the headless bodies of rebels (p.26)
  • The silk city of Suzhou was held by 40,000 Taiping rebels. General Li Hongzhang besieged it and the rebel leaders surrendered. Li had all the leaders executed and half the defenders massacred, then the city was comprehensively looted (p.28)
  • When the poet and Taiping rebel leader Shi Dakai surrendered to save his troops from imperial forces, he himself was slowly sliced to death in the process sometimes translated as ‘death by a thousand cuts‘ (a form of punishment and torture commonly used in China until it was officially banned in 1905), and 2,000 of his troops were massacred (p.28)
  • The last engagement of the Taiping Rebellion was the imperial reconquest of the rebels’ capital at Nanjing in 1864. At least 100,000 rebels were killed in the three-day battle and the imperial army went on to massacre the entire population of Nanjing (p.29)
  • While the Taiping devastated the south, northern China was rocked by the Nian Rebellion with its snappy motto: ‘kill the rich and aid the poor’. (The more you learn, the more the disasters of Mao’s communism reveal their deep roots in Chinese tradition i.e. he was invoking and repeating well-established cultural practices.)
  • Having finally conquered the Taiping rebels, Qing imperial forces went north to exterminate the Nians, at first by surrounding and starving them. In one canton the population was reduced to eating the crushed bones of the dead and then to cannibalism. Then they were massacred (p.30).
  • In 1872 the leader of the rebellious Hui Muslims in Yunnan, surrounded in his capital Dali by imperial armies, swallowed an overdose of opium and had his corpse carried in a sedan chair to the imperial camp, where it was ceremonially decapitated. Then the imperial army launched a ferocious attack on Dali, an eye-witness claiming that not a single Muslim man, woman or child was left living, while the streets ran ankle deep in blood. The ears of the dead were cut off and more than 20,000 ears were sent in baskets to the court in Beijing. Any surviving women and children were sold as sex slaves (p.30)
  • Imperial general Zuo Zongtang besieged the leader of the anti-Qing rebellion in Gansu province, Ma Hualong, in his capital at Jinjipu. Having reduced the population to cannibalism, Zuo accepted the surrender of Ma before having him sliced alive, executing his son and officials, then massacring the town’s inhabitants, and burning it to the ground (p.31).

That’s just 13 pages out of 680. On and on it goes, the mind-boggling violence and cruelty – with murders, massacres, battles and pogroms, torture and beheadings, floods and famine on nearly every page.

The complete absence of democracy or debate

If the accumulated disasters ram home one bitter lesson, it is that Chinese politics and culture entirely lacked the ability to cope with dissenting voices and differing opinions. The Imperial system was based on total obedience. It was backed up by the phenomenally hierarchical philosophy of Confucius, in which everyone is subordinate to superiors and must obey (sons obey fathers, wives obey husbands etc).

From the court down, through the gentry class, the army, intellectuals and students – it was either Total Obedience or Total Rebellion, no middle way was possible because no middle way was conceivable, was – literally – capable of being thought.

This top-down mindset was inherited by the Nationalist Party which imposed a sort of government over most of China between the wars – and then was repeated once again in the terrifying dictatorship of Mao Zedong from 1949 till his death in 1976.

The messy polyphony of Western democracies, with its satire, criticism, proliferating parties, all sorts of newspapers, magazines and outlets for opposition and dissent – with its free speech – was just one of the many things the Chinese despised about the West, and considered themselves loftily superior to.

Whether it was imperial China or Nationalist China or communist China: all Chinese disdained and mocked the uncultured buffoonery of western democracy.

And the result was war upon war upon war – your opponents weren’t guys you could just invite round for a smoke and a chat about their demands and do deals with: they were ‘impious rebels’, ‘imperial running dogs’, ‘idolatrous demons’, ‘surrenderists’, ‘mountaintopists’ and so on.

China doesn’t appear to have much political theory. Instead it has a rich vocabulary of abuse based on one fundamental idea – he who is not with me is against me. Hence a litany of dehumanising insults designed to turn your opponents into non-human vermin who must simply be exterminated. And exterminated they were, on an industrial scale.

None of this changed when the empire fell in 1911: the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek carried on using the same language both about all their enemies (‘foreign devils’, ‘communist dogs’), while the communists developed their own special language of abuse and dehumanisation.

As Fenby shows in excruciating detail, both Nationalists and communists not only massacred each other, but were riven by internal splits which led to pogroms and mass liquidations of their own side.

People couldn’t just agree to disagree (and what a beautiful achievement of English civilisation that phrase seems in this context): they felt compelled to exterminate the ‘capitalist roaders’ or ‘communist dogs’ on their own side.

For, as Fenby shows, from Tiananmen Square in 1989 to this day, the Chinese communist party leadership, despite having transformed their country into a peculiar type of state capitalism, is still incapable of managing dissenting voices and opinions. From mass movements like the Falun Gong, to the wishes of the Tibetan people kindly not to have their culture destroyed, to the Muslim separatists of Xinjiang, through to individual dissidents like the high-profile artist Ai Weiwei – there are no mechanisms for dialogue, there never have been: there is only the language of demonisation and total repression.

This utter inflexibility buried deep in the Chinese psyche, this inability of its leaders to tolerate any form of free speechers, combined with an unbending sense of their own superiority and rectitude, is the enduring characteristic of Chinese leaders and one which has plunged their country again and again and again into bloodshed and terror on an unimaginable scale.

This book covers the 170 years from 1850 to the present. It feels like it skimps a bit on the earlier years – not telling me much more about the vast, calamitous Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) that I hadn’t learned from John Keay’s history of China – in fact I wonder if there’s a good up-to-date history devoted to just the Taiping…

It’s really in the 1870s and 80s that the text becomes increasingly detailed, that you feel you are beginning to get to grips with the minutiae of the period, and to get a feel for the enormous cast of characters. The later 19th century in China rotates around the cunning dowager empress Cixi and the constellation of young emperors and courtiers who circle round her.

As with Keay’s book, there is no point trying to summarise such a vast and complex history. Instead, I’ll give a basic timeline and then highlight a few of the thoughts and issues that arose.

China timeline

  • 1644-1912 Qing Dynasty Although the Qing rulers adapted quickly to traditional Chinese rule they were ethnically different from the majority of the native, Han Chinese, hailing from Manchuria in the north. This provided a pretext for all sorts of nationalist rebellions against their rule from the 1850s onwards. The later Qing emperors are:
    • Emperor Xianfeng (1850 – 1861)
    • Emperor Tongzhi (1861 – 1875)
    • Emperor Guangxu (1875 – 1908)
    • Emperor Xuantong (1908 – 1911)
  • 1850-64 Taiping Rebellion – led by a religious zealot, Hong Xiuquan. Convinced he was Jesus’s younger brother, Hong whipped up his followers to expel all foreigners, which included not only westerners but the ‘alien’ Manchu dynasty. Wherever they triumphed, they massacred Manchus, and established a reign of terror based on countless public beheadings. The Taiping Rebellion was the bloodiest civil war and the largest conflict of the 19th century, one of the bloodiest wars in human history, with estimate of deaths ranging as high as 70 million – more reasonably set at 20 million.
  • 1894-95 First Sino-Japanese War Fought over possession of Korea, until then a Chinese vassal, to secure its coal and iron and agricultural products for Japan. The Japanese seized not only Korea but the Liaodong Peninsula and Port Arthur, within marching distance of Beijing, as well as the island of Taiwan.

Japanese soldiers beheading 38 Chinese POWs as a warning to others, illustration by Utagawa Kokunimasa

  • 1898 The Guangxu Emperor’s Hundred Days’ Reform is stopped in its tracks and reversed by the Dowager Empress Cixi.
Empress Dowager Cixi, maybe the central figure of the last 50 years of the Chinese empire

Empress Dowager Cixi, the central figure of the last 40 years of the Chinese empire

  • 1899-1901 The Boxer Rebellion – Han Chinese rose up against foreigners, the highlight being the siege of the Western embassies in Beijing.
  • 1911 Anti-Qing rebellions break out accidentally and spread sporadically across China with no single unifying force, just a wave of local strongmen who reject Qing rule.
  • 1912 The last Qing emperor abdicates Temporary presidency of republican hero Dr Sun Yat-sen.
  • 1912-1915 presidency of General Yuan Shikai, a military strongman who works through a network of allies and placemen around the provinces. Power goes to his head and he has himself declared emperor of a new dynasty, before dying of blood poisoning.
  • 1916-1928 The Warlord Era – China disintegrates into a patchwork of territories ruled by local warlords, creating a ‘meritocracy of violence’.
  • 1919 May 4th – Student protests against the humiliating terms of the Versailles peace Treaty (China, who sent over 100,000 coolies to help the Allies, was given nothing, while Japan, who did nothing, was given all the territory previously held by the defeated Germany, including territory in the province of Shandong, birthplace of Confucius, creating the so-called Shandong Problem).
  • 1919 October – foundation of the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party of China, a right-wing reaction against the pro-democracy 4th of May movement, which emphasised traditional Chinese values and, led by Chiang Kai-Shek in the 1920s and 30s, went on to form the nearest thing to a government China had, until defeated by the communists in 1949.
  • 1921 Inspired by the Fourth of May protests against imperialism and national humiliation the Communist Party of China is formed with help from Russian Bolsheviks
  • 1937-45 Second Sino-Japanese War (see the book about it by Rana Mitter)

Themes & thoughts

Mass killing

Wow, the sheer scale, the numbers who were killed. In the hundred and ten years from the Taiping Rebellion to the Cultural Revolution, maybe 100 million Chinese died unnatural deaths, actively killed or dying from avoidable starvation or drowning. The Taiping Rebellion itself was responsible for maybe 20 million deaths. The war with Japan caused another 14 million or so. Mao’s famine and general mismanagement maybe 45 million. 45 million.

Even what sound like fairly minor revolts in cities and towns, rural disturbances, seem to result in thousands of deaths almost every year. Every dozen or so pages Fenby quotes another western journalist arriving at the scene of another massacre by the Taiping rebels or Boxer rebels or warlord rebels, by the imperial forces or Muslim rebels, by the Nian or the nationalists or the communists – and finding the city razed to the ground and the river choked with corpses

  • In 1895 James Creelman of the New York World finds Port Arthur devastated and the unarmed civilians butchered in their houses, the streets lined with corpses and heads stuck on pikes by the rampaging Japanese army (p.51)
  • In 1900 Richard Steel witnessed the aftermath of Boxer rebels’ attempt to take the foreign section of Tianjin, where they were mown down by Japanese and Russian soldiers, leaving the city in ruins and the river choked with Chinese corpses (p.90)

Brutality

Being made to kneel and have your head sliced off with a scimitar was a standard punishment for all sorts of crimes. As the empire crumbled and was subject to countless rebellions small and large across its vast territory, their suppression and punishment required an astonishing number of Chinese to chop each others’ heads off.

The Mandarin in charge of suppressing the Taiping Revolt in Canton boasted of having beheaded 100,000 rebels (p.22). During the 1911 revolution the new governor of Sichuan had his predecessor decapitated and rode through the streets brandishing his head (p.121).

Arms tied behind their backs, forced to kneel in big public gatherings, then head sliced off with a ceremonial sword

Arms tied behind their backs, forced to kneel in big public gatherings, head sliced off with a ceremonial sword

Resistance to change

I was staggered by the absolute, dead-set determination from top to bottom of Chinese society to set its face against modernisation, industrialisation, liberalisation, democracy and all the other new-fangled ideas from the West, which it so despised. From 1850 to about 1980, all Chinese governments were determined to reject, deny, censor and prevent any incorporation of corrupt, decadent, capitalist Western ideas and techniques.

As John Keay remarked, a central characteristic of the Chinese is an ingrained superiority complex – their leaders, from the emperor to Chaing Kai-shek to Mao, just know that China is the centre of the world and is superior to the rest of the world, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Fenby describes the late-imperial world as ‘a system which was not designed to accommodate, let alone encourage, change’ (p.38.) As the late 19th century reformer Li Hongzhang admitted in 1884,

‘Affairs in my country have been so confined by tradition that I could not accomplish what I desired.’ (p.41)

The first railway in China, built by the British in Shanghai, was bought by the local council who had the rails torn up and the station turned into a temple. Railways interfered with feng shui and local customs. They brought in foreign devils. Like every other western innovation i.e. like every single aspect of the modern world, they were resisted hammer and tong by Chinese at all levels. As an edict from the Guangxu Emperor’s Hundred Days’ Reform put it, China was afflicted by:

‘the bane of the deeply-rooted system of inertness and a clinging to obsolete customs.’ (p.67)

Reformers were always in a minority, within the court itself, let alone in a country overwhelmingly populated by illiterate peasants. Which explains why it took China about 100 years – from the 1880s when it began to grasp some of the implications of capitalism – until well into the 1980s, to even begin to implement it.

Fenby’s immensely detailed picture takes account of the endless war, violence and conflict China was caught up in. But what comes over most is that Chinese of all ranks and levels of education didn’t want it – western ‘democracy’, ‘free speech’, competition, egalitarianism, innovation, entrepreneurism, disruptive technologies.

没有! Méiyǒu! NO!

Foreign devils

Rana Mitter’s book about the China-Japanese war contains a surprising amount of anti-western and anti-British feeling and he frequently refers to the ‘unequal treaties’ of the nineteenth century between European powers and a weakened China, but since his book is about the war of the 1930s, he doesn’t give a lot of detail.

Fenby’s book by contrast covers exactly the period of ‘unequal treaties’ (where European countries took advantage of China’s weakness to get her to sign away rights to trade, legal coverage of foreigners, entire treaty ports like Hong Kong), gives a lot more detail, and really drills home why the century from 1840 to 1940 was a period of sustained national humiliation for the Chinese – it is in fact known as ‘the century of humiliation’ or ‘the hundred years of national humiliation’.

Basically, Westerners imposed an unceasing stream of treaties designed, initially, to create special trading cantonments on the coast, but which one by one encroached further inland, ensured Westerners were exempt from Chinese law (in effect, free to do what they wanted) and could force trade with the Chinese on unfavourable and biased terms.

Moreover, there were so many foreign nations each scrambling to get a piece of the action in China – most obviously trading basic commodities but also competing for the broader opportunities which opened up later in the 19th century, for example building railways or setting up banks. I hadn’t realised how many western countries queued up to get their slice of the action.

I knew about the usual suspects – Britain with its powerful navy, and France encroaching up from its colony down in Indo-China i.e. Vietnam-Laos. But Bismarck’s unification of Germany by the 1870s announced the arrival of a new, more brutal competitor who was determined not to miss out in either Africa or China.

And Fenby makes clear that the Chinese feared neighbouring Russia more than all the others, because of its steady expansion into the north of the country and Manchuria (‘The British, French and Germans were a constant irritant, but the Tsarist empire and its communist successor represented a much greater territorial threat to China.’ p.31). And above all, the Chinese should, of course, really have been most scared of Japan, another ‘divine empire’, which turned out to be by far its worst destroyer.

I was startled when Fenby gives the process the overall title ‘the Scramble for China’, since this is a term usually reserved for the European ‘Scramble for Africa’ – but as he piled example on example of the countless unequal trading deals, the intimidation of Chinese authorities with gunships and punitive armed raids by European armies, I came to realise how true it was, how carved up, humiliated and exploited China became – and so why getting rid of foreigners and foreign influence came to be such a dominating strand in the mindset of 20th century Chinese intellectuals and revolutionaries.

'China - the cake of kings and emperors' French political cartoon by Henri Meyer (1898)

‘China – the cake of kings and emperors’ French political cartoon by Henri Meyer (1898)

Ratcheting A key element of the unequal treaties was the way each of the European nations was able to out-trump the others… and then all the others demanded parity. Some German missionaries were harmed in a remote province? Germany demanded reparations and increased trading rights. At which the British, French, Russians and Americans all demanded a similar ratcheting up of their rights and accessibility. Some British merchants were attacked in Canton? The British sent in gunboats, demanded reparations and the rights to entire industries – and all the other European nations then demanded parity or they’d send in their gunboats.

So it went on with an apparently endless ratcheting up of the legal and commercial privileges and the sums demanded by the rapacious Europeans.

Unequal treaties

  • 1839–42 The First Opium War leading to the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing – granted an indemnity and extraterritoriality to Britain, the opening of five treaty ports, and the cession of Hong Kong Island
  • 1844 The Treaty of Whampoa between France and China, which was signed by Théodore de Lagrené and Qiying on October 24, 1844, extended the same privileged trading terms to France as already exacted by Britain
  • 1845 The Treaty of Wanghia between China and the United States, signed on July 3, 1844 in the Kun Iam Temple.
  • 1856-60 The Second Opium War pitting the British Empire and the French Empire against the Qing dynasty of China.
  • 1858 – British attack on Canton after Chinese sailors were arrested aboard a ship carrying the British flag. British houses were burned and a price put on the heads of foreigners. British forces secured Canton. British and French forces attacked Tienjin, the coastal area east of Beijing. The westerners marched on Beijing and burned down the emperor’s Summer Palace (1860), among the looters being Charles Gordon, later to make his name at Khartoum. In the final peace treaty the allies were paid a large indemnity, trading concessions and Russia was given 300,000 square miles of territory in the far north!
  • 1884-5 The Sino-French War, also known as the Tonkin War, in which the French seized control of Tonkin (northern Vietnam).
  • 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki ending the first Sino-Japanese war cedes to Japan Taiwan, the Pescadores islands and the Liaodong Peninsula, along with an indemnity of 16.5 million pounds of silver as well as opening five coastal ports to Japanese trade.

Fenby’s account makes vividly and appallingly clear the kind of treadmill of endless humiliation and dismemberment which educated Chinese felt their country was being remorselessly subject to. And the hypocrisy of the Western nations who went on about ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’, while all the time lining their pockets and showing no morality whatsoever.

Western advantages

All that said, the Chinese needed the West and Fenby (thankfully) paints a nuanced and complex picture. Just as not all Chinese were pigtailed ignoramuses, so not all Westerners were hypocritical exploiters. A shining example is Robert Hart, an Ulsterman from a poor family, who rose to become the head of the China’s Customs Service, just one of many Westerners employed by the imperial court for their (Western) knowledge and expertise. Hart ran the service from 1863 to 1911 and transformed it from a corrupt, antiquated and inefficient sinecure into a well-run organisation which ended up being one of the main contributors to imperial finances. He became a byword for honesty and dependability, and was awarded a number of China’s highest honours.

Hart’s story reminds us that it is a complicated world, then as now, and that many Westerners made significant contributions to China, establishing a range of businesses, banks, building railways, developing areas of the economy. If there was a lot of shameful gunboat diplomacy, there was also a lot of genuine collaboration and contribution.

Fleeing to the West

It is also notable the number of times that native Chinese reformers, dissidents, disgraced court officials and so on fled to the European ports to find sanctuary. Here they found law and order, cleanliness and hygiene which, if not perfect, were vastly superior to the dirt, zero plumbing and violence of their native China.

In 1912, as revolutionary violence swept China, many members of the Imperial court took refuge in the foreign compounds.

After the Tiananmen Square ‘Massacre’ of June 1989, as many of the student leaders as could manage it fled abroad, most ending up in America, for example prominent student leader Chai Ling who went on to head up a successful internet company.

The Japanese

‘As we entered the town of Port Arthur, we saw the head of a Japanese soldier displayed on a wooden stake. This filled us with rage and a desire to crush any Chinese soldier. Anyone we saw in the town, we killed. The streets were filled with corpses, so many they blocked our way. We killed people in their homes; by and large, there wasn’t a single house without from three to six dead. Blood was flowing and the smell was awful. We sent out search parties. We shot some, hacked at others. The Chinese troops just dropped their arms and fled. Firing and slashing, it was unbounded joy. At this time, our artillery troops were at the rear, giving three cheers [banzai] for the emperor.’
– Diary of Japanese soldier, Makio Okabe, describing the capture of Port Arthur, November 1894

Multiply this several million times to get the full impact of what it meant to be a neighbour of Imperial Japan in the first half of the twentieth century: Korea, Manchuria, mainland China all benefited from Japan’s goal of building a glorious Asian empire. This is described at great length in Rana Mitter’s history of the China-Japanese war.

Maoist madness

The madness of the Mao Zedong era is described in my reviews of Frank Dikotter’s book:

But Fenby dwells at length on the paranoia and crazed whims of the Great Helmsman, with results that eclipse the horrors of the late Qing Empire. The famine which resulted from his Great Leap Forward policy (1958 to 1962) resulted in anything from 30 to 55 million deaths. And that’s before the separate category of deaths actively caused by the security forces implementing their brutal policy of forced collectivisation.

Plus ça change…

Countries are like people, they rarely change. The modern history of Chinese history is a fascinating case study. Again and again Fenby points out that certain patterns of behaviour recur and recur, the most notorious being the attempt to impose reform of Chinese society from the top, reform which threatens to get out of hand, and then is harshly repressed. As predictable as a, b, c.

Thus his description of a) the attempted reforms of the Guangxu Emperor in 1898, which b) began to get out of hand c) were brought to an abrupt halt by the power behind the throne, the Dowager empress Cixi, eerily pre-echo a) Mao’s unleashing of revolutionary change from above in the Cultural Revolution b) which even he realises is getting out of hand and c) represses.

Or the way the a) very mild liberal reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s led to b) the unpredictable outburst of student protests in Tiananmen Square which the party hierarchy tolerated for a few weeks before c) brutally suppressing.

To this day the rulers of China daren’t institute anything like real democracy because they know the chaos they would unleash, they remember the history of the Warlord Era, indeed the terrifyingly violent history this book describes. Maybe such a vast and varied terrain, containing so many ethnicities and levels of economic development, can still only be managed by a strong central authority?

And the more you read and learn about the Chinese history of the past century – the more you sympathise with them. Fenby’s long and gruelling narrative ends with the repeated conclusion that China’s rulers are as repressive as ever – indeed, given the arrival of the internet, they are able to practice surveillance and social control of their populations which previous dictators could only have dreamed of.

And yet they are all too aware that they are sitting astride a bubbling cauldron of vast social inequality, political corruption, popular resentment, ethnic division (most obvious in Tibet and Xinjiang but present among a hundred other ethnic minorities), and the pressures and strains caused by creating a dynamic go-head 21st century economy controlled by a fossilised, top-down, 20th century Leninist political structure.

This is an extraordinarily insightful and horrifying book. Anybody who reads it will have their knowledge of China hugely increased and their opinion of China and the Chinese irreparably damaged.


Related links

Other reviews about China

Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard (2008)

Finally, right at the end of his life (he died the year after it was published), Ballard wrote a genuine autobiography which actually sets the record straight.

Two of his previous books, Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991), had been marketed as autobiographies but, as time went by, it became clearer and clearer (not least from interviews with Ballard himself) that they contained large slices of invention, fictional characters and imaginary events, as well as playing fast and loose with the few actual events of his life which they retold.

(For example, in Kindness his wife is described as dying after slipping and cracking her head against stone steps at a holiday villa in Spain; in fact she died of pneumonia, so the moving description of her slipping, the crack as her head hit the stone, Ballard rushing over and cradling her, seeing the growing bruise behind her ear, her loss of feeling down one side as the ambulance rushed her to hospital – all of that is entirely fictional.)

In interviews Ballard emphasised that both books were novels presented in autobiographical form and this is what a careful reading confirms.

Still, Miracles of Life is an odd book because although it adds new detail about, for example, his parents and their family origins in the West Midlands, or his decision to become a science fiction writer in the mid 1950s, or the passages describing the art and literary world of the 50s and 60s – it doesn’t really alter the essential shape of his biography, and anyone who has read The Kindness of Women will experience a strong sense of déjà vu.

Some incidents, like his description of the famous exhibition of crashed cars he organised in 1970 and how the visitors’ bad behaviour inspired him to write the novel Crash – or the passages about his visit to the set of the Spielberg filming of Empire of the Sun, right down to the words 12-year-old Christian Bale used to introduce himself (‘Hello, I’m you’) feel like they’ve been copied almost word for word from Kindness.

But then when he came to write Miracles, Ballard knew he was dying. Maybe he ran out of time to revise and expand the familiar stories as he would have done had he lived a bit longer…

J.G. Ballard outline biography

  • born in 1930 and raised in the International Settlement in Shanghai
  • plays as a carefree boy among the privileged ex-pats, goes on cycle rides across the vast teeming fantasy land of Shanghai
  • 1941 Pacific War breaks out: interned along with his parents in Lunghua civilian internment centre 1943-45
  • 1945 the end of the war and strange months of disorientation back in the International Settlement
  • 1946 travels back to England with his mother and younger sister
  • 1946-49 public school in Cambridge
  • 1949 undergraduate at Cambridge studying medicine
  • 1954 packs it in to go and train to be an RAF pilot in Canada
  • 1955 returns to England and takes a string of unsatisfactory jobs, as an advertising copywriter, a porter in a London market, door-to-door encyclopedia salesman; marries Mary Matthews
  • sells first short story in 1956, commencing a prolific burst of story writing – over the next ten years he writes some 70 stories
  • This Is Tomorrow art exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery kick-starts Pop Art in the UK and confirms his sense that he should be writing about the psychological impact of the new world of consumer capitalism, advertising, TV and so on
  • 1957 daughter Fay born
  • 1959 daughter Beatrice born
  • knocks out first pulp novel The Wind From Nowhere on a fortnight’s holiday in 1961
  • second, more serious novel, The Drowned World  published in 1963
  • summer 1963 his wife Mary dies of pneumonia on holiday in Spain, leaving him a widower to bring up three small children; he never remarries
  • after wife’s death his subject matter becomes darker (according to critics), more radical and penetrating (in his own opinion)
  • 1966 starts writing the short pieces which go to make The Atrocity Exhibition
  • 1970 supervises an exhibition of (three) crashed cars at the Arts Lab
  • 1973 Crash
  • 1974 Concrete Island
  • 1975 High Rise
  • 1984 Empire of the Sun, the novel
  • 1988 Empire of The Sun, the movie, directed by Steven Spielberg

So the basic outline is not that different from what we’d read in The Kindness of Women, and had been sketched out in the biographical blurb at the front of all his books since the 1960s.

Also, it’s no great revelation, but it’s worth noting how much the book is weighted towards those 15 formative years in China – it’s only on page 121 of the 278 pages of my paperback edition that Jim finally arrives back in Blighty i.e. nearly half the text covers about a fifth of his life (he died, aged 79, in 2009).

New learnings

Fantasyland

Shanghai was a surreal phantasmagoria, from its exotic street life, to its markets, aromatic food, crooks and gangsters and whores, to the dead bodies which lined the streets and the public stranglings which he attended, and streets full of food vendors and shiny American cars cruising past people in rags literally starving to death, and first nights of new glamorous Hollywood movies. His childhood in Shanghai marked him for life, even before the Japs turned on the Europeans and interned them all. As he eloquently puts it:

Anything was possible, and everything could be bought and sold. In many ways, it seems like a stage set, but at the time it was real, and I think a large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory.

‘A large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory.’ That’s quite a thought-provoking comment. If you add together the descriptions of Shanghai in Kindness and here, it does add up to an extraordinary phantasmagoria of possibilities, and the often comic-book exaggeration of many of his scenarios and characters may well derive from a child’s cartoon version of an already garish reality.

Cynical

By the age of 14 he had become quite as blasé and cynical about life as the long-suffering Chinese around him. His boyhood was full of dead bodies – the peasants who died every night in Shanghai, poor beggars who died in doorways, the river full of corpses floating gently to the sea because their families couldn’t afford decent burials. And over and above this, the daily public stranglings as a form of justice. And then when the Japanese took over in 1937, the routine public beheadings.

A vast cruelty lay over the world, and was all we knew.

Chilly sex

This primal, founding view of the world – as packed with brutal cruelty – helps to explain Ballard’s clinical description of bodies and the thousand and one horrific mutilations they are vulnerable to. And it underpins his view of sex, which – as his readers know – he depicts with a compellingly clinical detachment.

America

From an early age he devoured American comics (Buck Rogers, Superman) and worshipped the big American cars he saw cruising the streets of Shanghai, the American suits worn by Chinese gangsters.

In the confusion of traffic on the Bund he pointed out ‘Two-Gun’ Cohen, the then famous bodyguard of Chinese warlords, and I gazed with all a small boy’s awe at a large American car with armed men standing on the running-boards, Chicago-style

He read comic books by the score and, a little later, Time and Newsweek, and soaked American can-do optimism into every pore of his body. It is interesting to learn that his father was also a can-do optimist, a fan of H.G. Wells and ‘an enthusiast for all things American’.

This worship of Americana underpins the first 25 years of his fiction, with its obsessions with the American space programme and the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam and Hollywood movie stars, and its many stories set in America – for example, the entire Vermilion Sands series about a desert resort much like Palm Springs – and finds an unsatisfactory climax in the strangely disappointing novel Hello America.

Reading this book you get a really deep sense of the vast cultural and economic difference between America and Britain after the war and can totally understand why America represented to most young Brits, money and gadgets and big shiny cars and exciting music and The Future, a feeling which lasted through the 1960s and then went astray during the 1970s, maybe as a result of Watergate and the oil crisis…

Ballard’s last clutch of novels, from Running Wild to Kingdom Come may be problematic in various ways, but at least they have escaped from the America-worship which dominates the earlier ones.

Lunghua

There are two massive revelations about Ballard’s time in Lunghua internment camp:

1. He was there with his parents Both Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women depict young Jim as being entirely on his own, abandoned and thrown back on his own resources. In both books it is said that his parents were taken by the Japanese to a different internment camp. But they weren’t. They were with him throughout.

This is a staggering deception and/or aesthetic choice, because Jim’s isolation  in both those books quite clearly makes the prison accounts massively more intense. Whereas his real life wasn’t at all – it was far more mediated by the fact that, at the end of every day’s adventures, he returned to the ‘Ballard family room’ in the block of the abandoned teacher training college which was used as the main accommodation of the camp.

Something confirmed by the astonishing fact that Ballard says in many ways his years in the Lunghua internment camp were the happiest years of his life! Well, this is a stunning surprise.

All in all, this was a relaxed and easy-going world that I had never known, except during our holidays in Tsingtao, and this favourable first impression stayed with me to the end, when conditions in the camp took a marked turn for the worse. I enjoyed my years in Lunghua, made a huge number of friends of all ages (far more than I did in adult life) and on the whole felt buoyant and optimistic.

Lunghua Camp may have been a prison of a kind, but it was a prison where I found freedom… Despite the food shortages in the last year, the bitterly cold winters (we lived in unheated concrete buildings) and the uncertainties of the future, I was happier in the camp than I was until my marriage and children.

This is a staggering sentiment to set beside the searingly intense text of Empire of the Sun.

Empire’s End

Maybe it’s a truism, but I was fascinated to read here, as we did in The Kindness of Women, how decisive the sinking of British ships and the surrender at Singapore (February 1942) were in ending all respect for the British across the Far East.

The fall of Singapore, and the sinking of the British battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales, devastated us all. British prestige plummeted from that moment. The surrender of Singapore, the capture of the Philippines and the threat to India and Australia sounded the death knell of Western power in the Far East and the end of a way of life. It would take the British years to recover from Dunkirk, and the German armies were already deep inside Russia. Despite my admiration for the Japanese soldiers and pilots, I was intensely patriotic, but I could see that the British Empire had failed.

Again, it’s one thing to read about this sort of thing in history books, but much more impactful to read about its affect on someone who was there.

Pro the atom bomb

Here, as in Kindness, it is mildly surprising, given the baleful shadow they cast over his early fiction, to learn that Ballard was whole-heartedly in favour of the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

Fortunately the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombs brought the war to an abrupt end. Like my parents, and everyone else who lived through Lunghua, I have long supported the American dropping of the bombs. Prompted by Emperor Hirohito’s surrender broadcast, the still-intact Japanese war machine ground to a complete halt within days, so saving millions of Chinese lives, as well as our own. For a hint of what might otherwise have happened, we can look at the vicious battle for Manila, the only large city in the Pacific War fought for by the Americans, where some 100,000 Philippine civilians died.

Part of the psychosis of the post-war years was that the bombs quite clearly saved many (especially American) lives, and so can be justified by this argument; but also incinerated nearly 100,000 mostly innocent civilians, men, women and children and so, on another level, are utterly indefensible. The psychosis derives from the way both these opposite views are ‘true’.

The railway station

The startling image which is described in chapter three of The Kindness of Women and which dominates the rest of that book – the experience of coming across four Japanese soldiers at a small train station in the midst of the abandoned rice paddies between Lunghua and Shanghai, and being forced to watch as one of them garrots a young Chinese peasant to death with telegraph wire – in Kindness the scene had a gruesome perfection, and is then made to haunt adult Jim for the rest of his life – in a way I thought was too good (or too bad) to be true. Yet it is described here as being true. Or at least it is repeated here (which may not be the same thing).

Back to Blighty

Ballard only first visited England when he was 16. This explains why he felt and writes about it as a bizarre foreign country. His father’s memories of the Lancashire he had lived in during the Great Depression had already primed the pump.

Most of his memories of Lancashire before and after the First World War seemed fairly bleak, and he would shake his head as he described the dreadful poverty. Eating an apple as he left school, he was often followed by working-class boys badgering him for the core.

Now, arriving at Southampton, he immediately saw how small and shabby and badly designed and impoverished everything was. It was immediately clear to him that Britain had, in effect, lost the war, and this impression of post-war shabbiness, rationing and austerity never left him, compared and contrasted with the amazing consumer boom the American economy underwent during those years.

Looking at the English people around me, it was impossible to believe that they had won the war. They behaved like a defeated population. I wrote in The Kindness of Women that the English talked as if they had won the war, but acted as if they had lost it. They were clearly exhausted by the war, and expected little of the future. Everything was rationed – food, clothing, petrol – or simply unobtainable. People moved in a herd-like way, queueing for everything. Ration books and clothing coupons were all-important, endlessly counted and fussed over, even though there was almost nothing in the shops to buy. Tracking down a few light bulbs could take all day. Everything was poorly designed – my grandparents’ three-storey house was heated by one or two single-bar electric fires and an open coal fire. Most of the house was icy, and we slept under huge eiderdowns like marooned Arctic travellers in their survival gear, a frozen air numbing our faces, the plumes of our breath visible in the darkness. More importantly, hope itself was rationed, and people’s spirits were bent low.

His mother dumped 16-year-old Jim with her parents in the West Midlands when she returned to Shanghai, and had a very bad time. ‘Narrow-minded’ doesn’t begin to convey the sense of his grand-parents’ claustrophobic provincialism.

I met him at the worst time, when England was exhausted by the war. There had been heavy bombing in the Birmingham area, and I suspect that they felt my mother’s years in Lunghua were a holiday by comparison. The war had made them mean, as it made a lot of the English mean…

His grandfather loathed the Labour government, which he thought was a form of fascism.

Yet all around him was the desperate poverty of the Black Country, with some of the most ill-housed and poorly educated people in western Europe, still giving their lives after the war to maintain an empire that had never been of the least benefit to them. My grandfather’s attitude was common, and based less on feelings of social class than on a visceral resistance to change. Change was the enemy of everything he believed in.

Later, when he got a job as a door to door encyclopedia salesman in the West Midlands, he for the first time really got to meet the working class and appreciate what poverty means.

For the first time, I was meeting large numbers of working-class people, with a range of regional accents that took a trained ear to decode. Travelling around the Birmingham area, I was amazed at how bleakly they lived, how poorly paid they were, poorly educated, housed and fed. To me they were a vast exploited workforce, not much better off than the industrial workers in Shanghai. I think it was clear to me from the start that the English class system, which I was meeting for the first time, was an instrument of political control, and not a picturesque social relic. Middle-class people in the late 1940s and 1950s saw the working class as almost another species, and fenced themselves off behind a complex system of social codes.

When he phrases it like that you can see why teenage Jim developed a sense that change was vital, that only radical change could revive this dead country; and how the obvious source of hope for change was from rich, powerful and glamorous America.

Contempt for Cambridge

In Kindness Jim is amusingly contemptuous of almost everything about Cambridge University, and its fake medievalism. Its only justification, for Jim, was as an economic tourist trap. In this book we get a bit more detail: Ballard respected the science done at Cambridge, the Rutherfords et al, the work being done in physics and medicine. But he has nothing but contempt for all its traditions of scholars gowns and High Table and madrigals in the college chapel.

There’s a one-line reminiscence of him attending an English lecture by F.R. Leavis who was a kind of god among contemporary literary critics, with his insistence that readers feel the life evinced in Jane Austen and Henry James and D.H. Lawrence – and being appalled at the man’s narrowness of understanding; and telling a fellow undergraduate that ‘It’s more important to go to T-Men (a classic noir film) than to Leavis’s lectures’. Ballard loathed it all. As in Kindness, his main interest was in investigating the US air force bases dotted all across the Fens.

No one seemed aware that the nostalgic pageant called ‘Cambridge’ was made possible by the fleets of American bombers waiting in the quiet fields around the city.

Francis Bacon

He thinks the art of Francis Bacon is central to the post-war era, although there is a chastening reminiscence of actually meeting the great man and being dismayed at how little he talked about the inspiration for his work, preferring to erect a buffer, a barrier, and talk about perspective and paint and its formal qualities. Nonetheless, Bacon is right up Ballard’s alley:

Bacon’s paintings were screams from the abattoir, cries from the execution pits of World War II. His deranged executives and his princes of death in their pontiffs’ robes lacked all pity and remorse. His popes screamed because they knew there was no God. Bacon went even further than the surrealists, assuming our complicity in the mid-century’s horrors. It was we who sat in those claustrophobic rooms, like TV hospitality suites in need of a coat of paint, under a naked light bulb that might signal the arrival of the dead, the only witnesses at our last interview.

Yet Bacon kept hope alive at a dark time, and looking at his paintings gave me a surge of confidence. I knew there was a link of some kind with the surrealists, with the dead doctors lying in their wooden chests in the dissecting room, with film noir and with the peacock and the loaf of bread in Crivelli’s Annunciation. There were links to Hemingway and Camus and Nathanael West. A jigsaw inside my head was trying to assemble itself, but the picture when it finally emerged would appear in an unexpected place.

This passage conveys the sense which dominates the middle part of the book, that Ballard was driven into paroxysms of frustration by everything he saw wrong about stuffy and impoverished and class-ridden and nostalgic post-war England, and which he was determined to undermine and change.

Friends

  • Kingsley Amis from 1962 to 1964 – Amis was a keen science fiction buff and wrote a glowing review of Ballard’s first novel, and then was personally helpful and supportive after Ballard’s wife died. Ballard goes out of his way to  emphasise all Amis’s good qualities before he became disillusioned with England, and then life, and turned into a professional curmudgeon.
  • Michael Moorcock became editor of Britain’s leading sci fi magazine New Worlds in 1964 and worked with Ballard to shake up the staid world of SF.
  • Eduardo Paolozzo the sculptor and artist who remained a close friend for 30 years.

About writing

There’s more here about his writing and his career as a writer than in The Kindness of Women, which isn’t difficult because there was next to nothing about it in that book. In several places he gives overarching speculations about the nature or motivation of his entire career. Was it all an attempt to recapture the strangeness of his boyhood in Shanghai? Was it all an attempt to stitch together the psychotic impressions of his boyhood, along with the senseless death of his wife?

My direction as a writer changed after Mary’s death, and many readers thought that I became far darker. But I like to think I was much more radical, in a desperate attempt to prove that black was white, that two and two made five in the moral arithmetic of the 1960s. I was trying to construct an imaginative logic that made sense of Mary’s death and would prove that the assassination of President Kennedy and the countless deaths of the Second World War had been worthwhile or even meaningful in some as yet undiscovered way. Then, perhaps, the ghosts inside my head, the old beggar under his quilt of snow, the strangled Chinese at the railway station, Kennedy and my young wife, could be laid to rest.

This really helps to explain the content and approach of The Atrocity Exhibition.

Later on he gives us another wording of what is basically the same idea:

My years in the [Cambridge Medical School] dissection room were important because they taught me that though death was the end, the human imagination and the human spirit could triumph over our own dissolution. In many ways my entire fiction is the dissection of a deep pathology that I had witnessed in Shanghai and later in the post-war world, from the threat of nuclear war to the assassination of President Kennedy, from the death of my wife to the violence that underpinned the entertainment culture of the last decades of the century.

Either of these notions provide plenty to chew over, but one aspect of them stands out to me. His beloved wife Mary died of pneumonia on a holiday in Spain in August 1963. Three months later Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The closeness of the dates suggests how Ballard must have still been in deep grief over his wife when the Kennedy assassination traumatised a generation, and this helps to explain why his writings evince just such a deeply traumatised reaction, and why the Kennedy assassination just keeps recurring, obsessively, throughout his mid-period books – because it is super-charged with his own personal tragedy.

Science fiction

It is fascinating to read his opinions about the science fiction of the day and why he gravitated towards it. Basically, the ‘serious’ literature of the 1950s simply seemed, to Ballard, ludicrously remote from the realities of everyday life. Even the Angry Young Men were still stuck in a world of public schools and tweed jackets, which – coming from Americanised Shanghai – he simply found ridiculous.

And, if that wasn’t enough, Ballard was reaching for some way to investigate what he saw as the psychopathologies underlying that everyday life – the new forces of consumerism and advertising and television which he watched slowly wash over wrecked, grey England in the 1950s. Nobody was capturing the new psychological and social forces which were being unleashed.

The combination of the two motives explains why he a) wanted to write science fiction – because it seemed untrammelled, liberated, free to explore the fast-changing world in a way the novels of old buffers like CP Snow or Anthony Powell never could b) but at the same time he wanted to drastically change what science fiction was about, from soap operas about hunky heroes in space suits brandishing ray guns on distant planets, to an exploration of the weird implications of life in the here and now. It was a two-fold rebellion.

Above all, the s-f genre had a huge vitality. Without thinking up a plan of action, I decided that this was a field I should enter. I could see that here was a literary form that placed a premium on originality, and gave a great deal of latitude to its writers, many of whom had their own trademark styles and approaches. I felt too that for all its vitality, magazine science fiction was limited by its ‘what if?’ approach, and that the genre was ripe for change, if not outright takeover. I was more interested in a ‘what now?’ approach. After weekend trips across the border [this is from the period when he was in Canada briefly training to become an RAF pilot] I could see that both Canada and the USA were changing rapidly, and that change would in time reach even Britain. I would interiorise science fiction, looking for the pathology that underlay the consumer society, the TV landscape and the nuclear arms race, a vast untouched continent of fictional possibility.

As he famously declared, he wanted to explore not outer, but inner space, and he gives a couple of handy clarifications of what this meant for him:

[E.J. Carnell, editor of New Worlds magazine] urged me not to imitate the American writers, and to concentrate on what I termed ‘inner space’, psychological tales close in spirit to the surrealists.

And:

My first decade as a writer coincided with a period of sustained change in England, as well as in the USA and Europe. The mood of post-war depression had begun to lift, and the death of Stalin eased international tensions, despite the Soviet development of the H-bomb. Cheap jet travel arrived with the Boeing 707, and the consumer society, already well established in America, began to appear in Britain. Change was in the air, affecting the nation’s psychology for good or bad. Change was what I wrote about, especially the hidden agendas for change that people were already exposing. Invisible persuaders were manipulating politics and the consumer market, affecting habits and assumptions in ways that few people fully realised. It seemed to me that psychological space, what I termed ‘inner space’, was where science fiction should be heading.

And:

In 1964 Michael Moorcock took over the editorship of the leading British science fiction magazine, New Worlds, determined to change it in every way he could. For years we had carried on noisy but friendly arguments about the right direction for science fiction to take. American and Russian astronauts were carrying out regular orbital flights in their spacecraft, and everyone assumed that NASA would land an American on the moon in 1969 and fulfil President Kennedy’s vow on coming to office. Communications satellites had transformed the media landscape of the planet, bringing the Vietnam War live into every living room. Surprisingly, though, science fiction had failed to prosper. Most of the American magazines had closed, and the sales of New Worlds were a fraction of what they had been in the 1950s. I believed that science fiction had run its course, and would soon either die or mutate into outright fantasy. I flew the flag for what I termed ‘inner space’, in effect the psychological space apparent in surrealist painting, the short stories of Kafka, noir films at their most intense, and the strange, almost mentalised world of science labs and research institutes where [his friend, psychologist] Chris Evans had thrived, and which formed the setting for part of The Atrocity Exhibition.

And this is what he did. After his dystopia trilogy of the early 1960s, almost all the rest of Ballard’s novels are set in the present day, and deal with psychosis and mental collapse or obsession i.e. with:

the psychological space apparent in surrealist painting, the short stories of Kafka, noir films at their most intense, and the strange, almost mentalised world of science labs

Which is linked to the fact, or helps explain why, so many of his characters are doctors or psychiatrists, from Dr Kerans in his first novel The Drowned World through to the wicked psychiatrist Dr Wilder Penrose in Cocaine Nights. (Although it should be noted that many of Ballard’s short stories, including some of the best of them, continued to be set in the future or in outer space).

Swimming pools

Anybody familiar with the first half of Ballard’s career knows that one of his recurring images is the drained swimming pool, which recurs with obsessive regularity, charged with ominous meaning.

In Miracles of Life Ballard finally gives his own interpretation of what all those drained swimming pools meant, going back (as so many things in his fiction do) to his boyhood experiences in Shanghai:

In the coming years I would see a great many drained and half-drained pools, as British residents left Shanghai for Australia and Canada, or the assumed ‘safety’ of Hong Kong and Singapore, and they all seemed as mysterious as that first pool in the French Concession. I was unaware of the obvious symbolism that British power was ebbing away, because no one thought so at the time, and faith in the British Empire was at its jingoistic height. Right up to, and beyond, Pearl Harbour it was taken for granted that the dispatch of a few Royal Navy warships would send the Japanese scuttling back to Tokyo Bay. I think now that the drained pool represented the unknown, a concept that had played no part in my life. Shanghai in the 1930s was full of extravagant fantasies, but these spectacles were designed to promote a new hotel or airport, a new department store, nightclub or dog-racing track. Nothing was unknown.

As it happens, I disagree. The symbolism of the drained swimming pool and their function seem simpler to me: swimming pools are a luxury and so drained swimming pools are symbols of a society which, at one point, had it all and has now lost it all.

So, in my view, the drained pools (and their cousins, the drained fountains) are powerful symbols of the collapse of the kind of moneyed and advanced civilisation which is necessary to maintain them. And, indeed, later in the book Ballard acknowledges this – I think – more obvious interpretation.

Other, more sympathetic readers of my earlier novels and short stories were quick to spot echoes of Empire of the Sun. The trademark images that I had set out over the previous thirty years – the drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels and nightclubs, deserted runways and flooded rivers – could all be traced back to wartime Shanghai. For a long time I resisted this, but I accept now that it is almost certainly true. The memories of Shanghai that I had tried to repress had been knocking at the floorboards under my feet, and had slipped quietly into my fiction.

Quietly? Shouting and screaming more like.

Taste for the abandoned

Because the drained swimming pools are merely a sub-set of Ballard’s absolute obsession with abandoned buildings, with the trappings of cities and advanced civilisations which have gone into terminal decline and been left abandoned and derelict by their creators.

His short stories are absolutely rammed with abandoned hotels, drained swimming pools and dead or dying airplanes – think of all those stories set amid the rusting gantries of the abandoned space centre at Cape Canavarel, the abandoned resort in Low Flying Aircraft or the entire abandoned city in The Ultimate City or the vision of New York a hundred years after it has been abandoned and filled with sand dunes in Hello America.

Anyway, in this book there’s a memory of exploring a casino in Shanghai which had been abandoned after the Japanese invasion of the city in 1937, and which expands to explain the importance of ‘the abandoned building’ for him. His father had told him not to go inside, but:

After a few minutes I could no longer restrain myself, and walked on tiptoe through the silent gaming rooms where roulette tables lay on their sides and the floor was covered with broken glasses and betting chips. Gilded statues propped up the canopy of the bars that ran the length of the casino, and on the floor ornate chandeliers cut down from the ceiling tilted among the debris of bottles and old newspapers. Everywhere gold glimmered in the half-light, transforming this derelict casino into a magical cavern from the Arabian Nights tales.

But it held a deeper meaning for me, the sense that reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment, and that no matter how magnificent anything appeared, it could be swept aside into the debris of the past. I also felt that the ruined casino, like the city and the world beyond it, was more real and more meaningful than it had been when it was thronged with gamblers and dancers. Abandoned houses and office buildings held a special magic and on my way home from school I often paused outside an empty apartment block. Seeing everything displaced and rearranged in a haphazard way gave me my first taste of the surrealism of everyday life, though Shanghai was already surrealist enough.

It’s that feel for the strange magic of abandoned buildings, eerily empty cities and drained swimming pools which absolutely drenches Ballard’s best and most distinctive short stories.

Miracles of Life

Lastly, what makes the book truly wonderful is the quality of love which permeates it. He has nothing but kind words for his wife who died so tragically, so long ago, and then for the strong, intelligent and funny woman, Claire Walsh, who became his lifelong partner in the mid-1960s (the one who appears in two of Ballard’s subversive advertisements, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere).

But it’s the passages about his children which overflow with love and pride and set the tone of this touching and tender book. From his descriptions of helping at the actual births, through bringing them up by himself and spending all his time with them, through to the pride he felt when they married, and in his grandchildren.

Despite the atrocities described in the war years, and the terrible poverty he saw in post-war England, and then his determination to subvert and change the hidebound worlds of literature and science fiction, as he himself points out, all this was froth compared to the deep, rich core of his family life. His easy-going expressions of love for his children are enough to move any parent to tears.

Conclusions

Miracles of Life is a wonderfully clear, intelligent and warm book. Its leading feature for me is the intelligence of the content. What I mean is that every paragraph says something interesting. It isn’t a meandering ramble. Every paragraph makes a point, paints a scene, depicts a character, and contains thoughtful and thought-provoking insights.

As with all Ballard there’s a chilly, if not clinical feel to some of it. And yet, paradoxically, at the same time, its very honesty and candour, first about his parents, and then overwhelmingly about his children, creates a powerful sense of warmth and affection. It isn’t sentimental, he regards the whole of life and the world with a detached and lucid eye: but that makes the love which suffuses the book all the more valuable and moving.

We spent hours with little fish nets, hunting for shrimps, which were always taken home in jam jars and watched as they refused to cooperate and gave up the ghost. Fay and Bea were fascinated by the daisies that seemed to grow underwater when the stream rose to flood the meadow. Shepperton Studios were easy to enter in those wonderful summers nearly fifty years ago, and I would take the children past the sound stages to the field where unwanted props were left to the elements: figureheads of sailing ships, giant chess-pieces, half an American car, stairways that led up to the sky and amazed my three infants. And their father: days of wonder that I wish had lasted for ever. I thought of my children then, and still think of them, as miracles of life, and I dedicate this autobiography to them.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard (1984)

Empire of the Sun is by far J.G. Ballard’s best known and most accessible book and was, of course, made into a major motion picture by Steven Spielberg. Cultural success doesn’t come much bigger than that. And, as a result, there are thousands of scholarly essays, as well as Brodie’s Notes and Wikipedia articles about Empire of the Sun, giving you the book’s plot and a standard account of its ‘themes’.

To avoid duplication, the aim of this review is to read the book as it sheds light on the nearly thirty years of Ballard’s science fiction novels and short stories which preceded it.


Empire of the Sun gave the game away. If you’d been reading Ballard’s novels and short stories during the 1960s and 70s you would have been bewildered by the intensity and weirdness of his imaginary world and the obsessive repetitiveness of his basic plot, in which a handful of people experience a catastrophic social collapse – either in a dystopian future or in an alienated present – becoming steadily more isolated from each other, pursuing their own psychotic fantasies in a derelict landscape of abandoned cities and empty hotels and drifting sand dunes, where maniacs try to turn themselves into birds or paint mandalas on the bottom of drained swimming pools in order to channel the voices of the universe, or try to fly microlight planes into the sun.

For nearly thirty years, from his first short story published in 1956 until Empire of The Sun was published in 1984, readers and critics had wondered where it came from, this unique, twisted and fiercely compelling psychic landscape which is the subject of most of Ballard’s best stories.

Then Empire of the Sun gave the game away. It describes how 11-year-old Jim, along with his mum and dad, a successful English businessman, experienced just such a social collapse and psychological extremes.

Jim and his family were living in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in December 1941 when the Japanese launched their surprise attack on America at Pearl Harbour, simultaneously attacking all the allied shipping in Shanghai harbour and moving swiftly to arrest all foreign nationals.

In the book, Jim escapes the initial roundup and lives for four months on the run in abandoned houses, eking a living from stagnant water and whatever dry food he can find in the empty larders of the once-rich International Settlement. He has weird encounters with a range of characters whose roles and identities have been turned upside down by the sudden collapse of Western values. Jim is finally caught by the Japanese authorities and spends the next three years in the living hell of Lunghua internment camp, just a few miles south-west of Shanghai, but a million miles from the pampered expatriate life he had grown up in.

So this is where it came from, the deep enduring and viscerally intense mood of world turned upside down and people starving in ruined hotels and abandoning themselves to psychotic fantasies, this is the origin of Ballard’s dazzling and distinctive subject and style!

Part one

Background The Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937 and the Japanese army quickly overran the Chinese Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-Shek whose government retreated far into western China. Meanwhile, China’s coastal regions and ports were taken over and administered by the Japanese who treated the defeated Chinese with great brutality but allowed European and American merchants and officials to carry on their businesses, but with a growing sense of unease.

The narrative starts as 11-year-old Jim watches his parents and their European friends in the International Settlement trying to keep their spirits up with fancy dress parties, tennis tournaments and bridge at the club, and gives us just enough of a description for us to realise the grotesque contrast between the anyone-for-tennis cocktail parties of the pampered westerners and the filthy, teeming, squalid world of the Shanghai slums.

Until one day the disaster they all knew was coming arrives and the bottom falls out of their world. Timed to coincide with the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (8am on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941) the Japanese ships in Shanghai harbour open devastating fire on the British ships moored nearby, sinking them and shooting the sailors who try to flee (to be precise, the Japanese cruiser Izumo, the gunboat Toba and Japanese shore batteries in the French Concession opened fire at point-blank range on HMS Peterel which returned fire until it capsized and drifted from its mooring while the crew abandoned ship.)

At the same time Japanese soldiers are sent to the luxury houses of the International Settlement, and rounded up all nationals of the countries Japan was now at war with, starting with the British and Americans. Germans and White Russians were left alone for the time being, though traumatised by watching their friends and neighbours be hustled out of their nice big houses and loaded up into army trucks and driven off to God knows where.

Jim and his dad happen to be on the quayside when the Japanese ships start shelling the British ones, and Jim watches his dad jump into the water, along with some other Brits, to try to help the survivors from the sunk British battleship stagger ashore onto the harbour’s stinking mud. Jim jumps in to help. The survivors are taken to Shanghai hospital, with Jim being put in a children’s ward by himself. A few days later, when Japanese lorries arrive and the walking wounded are hustled into them and driven off, Jim escapes from the hospital and makes his way through the teeming streets, dodging a Chinese teenager who tries to mug him, walking all the way back to the International Settlement.

And what does he find? A world in ruins. A dystopian landscape of empty houses, all power and lights disconnected, defrosting fridges, draining swimming pools and gardens rapidly becoming overgrown. In a key scene, Jim approaches one of the many mute and submissive Chinese servants who had worked in his parents’ house and is now looting a sofa from it, and the man simply punches Jim in the face.

Too stunned to speak or think, Jim retreats and hides, finding refuge in these abandoned, dark and dangerous places, formerly the scene of so much jollity. The narrative shows Jim hiding out for weeks, initially enjoying himself riding his bicycle indoors, up and down the empty hall and into all the empty rooms, until the weeks become leaden, eventually turning – we are told – into four months, scraping a living on cocktail olives and cheese biscuits, drinking increasingly rancid water from brackish water tanks, growing thinner and more feverish.

Aha! So this is where it comes from. Ballard’s lifelong obsession with the ruins of the contemporary world, with abandoned hotels and empty cities and derelict shopping centres and the obsessive, recurring image of The Drained Swimming Pool.

In a flash all his many fans and critics realised that – although many of his novels and stories are set in the future and feature futuristic plot paraphernalia – environmental catastrophe or strange new ‘space sicknesses’ – in fact Ballard’s fiction was always about the past, that like any victim of severe trauma, he was obsessively revisiting the shock, ordeal and suffering of those crucial, decisive boyhood years.

Towards the end of the 160 pages of part one, Jim falls in with a couple of American chancers, Basie, a confident rat-faced man, formerly a steward on passenger liners, who’s made a base in a ruined tanker in Shanghai harbour and sends bigger, tougher Frank out on chores. Jim gets co-opted into their eerie and often pointless survivor lifestyle. Basie makes Frank collect and polish ship’s porthole brasses, though they never manage to sell one. In one scene they go to busy Hongkew market where, Jim realises, they are trying to sell him to the Chinese, but he is by this stage so obviously malnourished, skinny and covered in running sores, that no-one is buying.

Part one ends when they take Jim out for a drive in their truck and he realises they’re simply want to find somewhere to dump him. Jim persuades them to drive to the abandoned houses of the International Settlement, luring them with the fact that one of Jim’s neighbours was a dentist who kept lots of equipment in his house. Maybe there’ll be some gold teeth somewhere in it. But they are caught by Japanese soldiers who are camping out in the abandoned houses and quickly surround the truck, pulling Jim out onto the road, while they surround and batter Frank, and beat Basie with their bamboo staves.

Part two

Part two opens three and a half years later. Jim, who was 11 in part one, is now 14 (p.165). To be more precise, the events of part one were kicked off by Pearl Harbour (December 1941), whereas when part two opens, not only has Victory in Europe day happened (May 1945, p.174) but the Japanese have surrendered at Okinawa (late June 1945) and this section ends with the detonation of the second atom bomb at Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. So it covers a few weeks in July and August 1945.

Anyway, part two (pp.163-260) finds a Jim who has survived three and a half long years in the Lunghua internment camp and been utterly changed by it. It describes in excruciating detail the permanent malnutrition and thirst, the obsession with food, and the countless petty humiliations the internees are prey to. Everyone is thin and emaciated, most can barely be bothered to walk or talk, Jim helps Dr Ransome (another in a long line of doctors in Ballard’s fiction) who not only tends the sick (with no medicine and barely even any water), who also uses the contents of the septic tank to try and grow a few sparse vegetables.

If part one – Jim’s experience of camping out and searching for half-rotten food in the abandoned houses of the rich – lies behind all those Ballard protagonists who camp out and scrape an existence in the derelict buildings of abandoned civilisations, then part two – where Jim watches all the rich and powerful and impressive English ex-pats he’d known from the Settlement slowly decline into malnutrition, fever and mania – lies behind the countless protagonists of his novels and short stories who deteriorate into mumbling psychotics.

Jim lives in a quarter of a bedroom in an abandoned training college which e shares with Mr and Mrs Vincent and their permanently ill six-year-old son. For three years there has been psychological warfare as Mrs Vincent tries to force him out or, at the very least, pushes the sheet they’ve hung as a partition between their three-quarters and his quarter of the space nearer to him.

Beyond the wire perimeter fence is the Lunghua airport and Jim venerates the beautiful fighter planes he watches taking off and landing, and admires the spirit of the steady stream of suicide fighter pilots who carry out their brief ritual of dedication to the Emperor before flying off to fly their planes with their huge bombs directly into the American navy ships in the South China Sea.

In the latter part of this long gruelling section, the Japanese soldiers round up all the internees and organise them for a march. It is quite clear that many of the camp’s 2,000 or so inhabitants are in no fit state to move, but the Japes move them out anyway, a crowd of pitifully thin scarecrows clutching on to their hurriedly packed belongings. Jim is surprised how many seem to have clung on to their tennis racquets and balls all through the three long years of privation.

The march takes a long time and after each rest, there are large numbers who can’t get up. Jim is in a close but strangely dissociated state with Mr Maxted, one of his parents friends, who is in the final stages of emaciation. Eventually, after a long march of intense suffering, the survivors are hustled into the old stadium at Nantao, built on the order of Madame Chiang in the hope that China would host the 1940 Olympics (p.257). Now it is packed with goods the Japanese have looted from the houses of the Westerners, starting with long rows of shiny American cars lined up by the running track, but going on to include all manner of household furniture piled up in the stands and, the presidential box,

where Madame Chiang and the Generalissimo might once have saluted the world’s athletes, was now crammed with roulette wheels, cocktail bars and a jumble of gilded plaster nymphs holding gaudy lamps above their heads. Rolls of Persian and Turkish carpets, hastily wrapped in tarpaulins, lay on the concrete steps, water dripping through them as if from a pile of rotting pipes.

Worn beyond endurance Mr Maxted lies down on the ground and starts to die. Jim dips his fingers in nearby puddles then puts them in Maxted’s mouth which postpones the inevitable for a little. Other British prisoners, right on the edge of death, feebly call for his help. Eventually, Jim, too, squats on the ground patting the earth and dumbly repeating his name over and over. Irritated by this a passing Japanese soldier makes ready to kick Jim, with the casual brutality he has witnessed so many times when all of a sudden… there is a flash of unusually intense white light from the north-east. They all pause, waiting for the sound of the bomb but none comes. Although he doesn’t realise it, Jim has witnessed the blast of the second atomic bomb, dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945.

Part three

Part three follows directly from the end of part two and describes what happens after the Japanese surrender. Jim comes to consciousness to discover it is hailing. He tries to capture and drink the water, then stirs himself and totters over to the stands. Slowly he realises the Japanese soldiers aren’t there any more. No-one is guarding them.

A Eurasian soldier enters the stadium, circulating among the dead prisoners and it’s he who tells Jim the Japanese have surrendered. But Jim soon discovers that freedom is far more violent and unpredictable than imprisonment. Life in Lunghua was full of reassuring rhythms and timetables. It was for the most part peaceful. Now they are all entering into a period of unpredictable anarchy. The Japanese simply stop administering anything, many of them taking to wandering the countryside at random or retreating into buildings waiting reprisals. Later Jim is to find a Japanese guard at Lunghua who the released British have tied to a camp bed and bludgeoned to death. Later still, a Japanese fighter pilot savagely bayoneted to death.

Quickly the Chinese Nationalist armies approach to liberate Shanghai, but there also large numbers of Chinese communist bands, as well as forces loyal to various warlords and then and fourth element, small groups of freelance survivors of all nationalities. Violent anarchy.

In the rice paddies surrounding the sports stadium Jim is in the last stages of malnutrition when, in a scene which beggars belief, huge American B29 aircraft fly overhead and drop… not bombs but food packages, hundreds of them, gently falling from the air on their blood-red parachutes. They burst open on landing and spill a treasure of tins of spam, powdered milk, chocolate and copies of Reader’s Digest magazine, all freezing cold having flown for hours miles up in the frozen air, hence the title of this chapter – The Refrigerator in the Sky.

His body sustained by this totally unexpected bounty, Jim staggers back towards Lunghua camp which isn’t in the end, all that far away, but discovers changes: it has been taken over and barricaded by psychotically violent and angry British prisoners, firstly to keep out the growing number of starving Chinese who sit patiently outside the main gate, but also because they know about the increasing numbers of marauding bands roaming the countryside.

Jim argues with a man he knew named Tulloch, the chief mechanic at the Packard agency, and Lieutenant Price, a British soldier who’s been driven mad by years of imprisonment and torture – his body is covered with cigarette burns – on the edge angry all the time ready to kill anyone. Eventually Tulloch lets Jim into the camp when Price isn’t looking and Jim goes and holes up in his old quarters, staying out the way, eating spam and chocolate, carefully arranging the magazines included in all the B29 airdrops in chronological order.

Part of Jim’s uneasy existence with psychotic Price & Tulloch is telling them about the treasure at Nantao stadium and, eventually, a week or so later, the pair and their crew set off towards Shanghai in a truck loaded with food, drinking heavily from the jars of rice wine they’ve bartered with some of the locals for tinned food. On an impulse at the last minute Price veers off the main Shanghai road towards the stadium, where they ask Jim again about the supposed treasures contained inside, park the lorry, get out and walk towards it when…

Suddenly a bunch of men with guns come charging out of the stadium entrance, and next thing they know are firing – Tulloch is shot dead, Price is beaten to death, just like that, just like so many of the random shifts of mood and inexplicable deaths Jim has been exposed to for three and a half years. Some of the armed group are Eurasians, some Chinese, some whites… a Chinese finds Jim in the back of the lorry and is just about to kick him to death when Jim recognises Basie in the oddly dressed, pomaded and talced American sauntering nearby. Basie’s presence just about saves Jim’s life and he lives on in a precarious relationship with them, till they too take off towards Shanghai, leaving Jim once again to travel across country to Lunghua, having further hallucinatory encounters, not least with a dead Japanese soldier who has been severely bayoneted and fallen off an embankment into a reed-filled canal, where Jim blunders into him.

Back at Lunhua Jim discovers the base has been taken over by Americans, who are refitting the runway, landing Mustangs and other planes, and he discovers Dr Ransom didn’t die on the death march after all, but has been fed and restored and is working as a doctor. The cemetery has been razed to the ground as if it never existed.

Part four

It is two months later and everything is disconcertingly back to normal – Jim has returned to the family home in Amherst Avenue to discover his mother and father are still both alive, though, of course, much changed after three and a half years in the Suchoo internment camp – Yang the chauffeur has returned with a limousine. Now Jim is being packed off with his mother to England, the small damp country he’s read so much about but never seen. Traveling to the docks he gets a panoramic view of Shanghai which has returned to its pre-war days, packed with gangsters, criminals, prostitutes and corrupt officials. Above them all are huge screens onto which the Allies insist a never-ending loops of Pathé newsreels tell the story of the entire war, its heroes and villains, in fast-moving black and white images set to rousing music. As Jim boards the steamer which will take him to England he looks down and sees in the water one of the many many coffins which the Chinese consign to the Shanghai river slowly floating around the ship in its corona of soaked flowers.


A boy’s eye view

It is crucial to the book’s success that we see this grim panorama of atrocities through the eyes of a boy. The book brilliantly conveys the way that, although Jim is intelligent for his age, he simply doesn’t understand half of what is happening or why. He reports everything he sees with a kind of wide-eyed candour. He doesn’t filter, he isn’t hindered by good manners or good taste. He tells you what he sees, and half the ‘tragedy’ or emotional aspect of the book comes from the way the reader so forcefully sees how Jim’s values and view of the world have been deeply corrupted. He simply takes it for granted that Chinese peasants are publicly beheaded, Chinese criminals publicly strangled in the street.

Usually Jim would have paused to observe the crowd. On the way home from school Yang would often drive by the Old City. The public stranglings were held in a miniature stadium with a scrubbed wooden floor and rows of circular benches around the teak execution posts, and always attracted a thoughtful audience. The Chinese enjoyed the spectacle of death, Jim had decided, as a way of reminding themselves of how precariously they were alive. They liked to be cruel for the same reason, to remind themselves of the vanity of thinking that the world was anything else.

He develops a highly tuned understanding of the strange Japanese mentality, how to pause, stop, bow and show respect, in order to avoid beating, although even then the standard Japanese response to almost everything is anger and beating or kicking anyone more vulnerable than themselves.

This starkness and clarity of vision, a kind of bright-eyed candour, underpins the attitude of most of the characters in Ballard’s fiction to whom often quite drastic things happen before they have any kind of emotional response. Maybe the therapists would say that almost all normal emotional response was burned out of Jim long long ago.

But there’s something else Jim’s character embodies which echoes and re-echoes throughout his stories and novels, which is the way the protagonists are often simply puzzled. They don’t understand other people. They can’t grasp other people’s motives. His stories are littered with the notion of ambiguous and uncertain motives, in fact the characteristic attitude of any of the protagonists towards other people is simply no understanding them.

You wonder whether, at some level, the shock Ballard received as a boy prevented him ever developing a properly socialised understanding of other people, and whether this explains the air of puzzlement all his characters display when they try – and generally fail – to interact with other people. Other people aren’t, pace Sartre, hell – they are just unknowable.

A clear-eyed style for deranged events

The very powerful upside of all this, or strongly connected to it somehow, is the striking clarity and limpidity of Ballard’s prose style.

Ballard’s style in this book is beautifully, beautifully clear and expressive and to the point. The lush exoticism which I pointed out in his earliest novels has been burned away, the psychotic extravagance of the urban disaster novels has been left behind and instead Ballard’s style is clear, grammatically correct and tremendously focused. Sentence after sentence conveys just the right amount of information to make you see the scene and understand Jim’s boyish thoughts. And his style doesn’t need to be florid, because the reality of what he’s describing is so innately colourful and bizarre.

A field of paper flowers floated on the morning tide, clustered around the oil-stained piers of the jetty and dressed them in vivid coloured ruffs. A few minutes before dawn Jim sat at a window of his bedroom at the Palace Hotel. He wore his school uniform and was keen to start an hour’s revision before breakfast. As always, however, he found it difficult to keep his eyes from the Shanghai waterfront. Already the odour of fish heads and bean curd sizzling in peanut oil rose from the pans of the vendors outside the hotel. Tung-stained junks with eyes painted on their bows sailed past the opium hulks beached on the Pootung shore. Thousands of sampans and ferry-boats were moored along the Bund, a city of floating hovels still hidden by the darkness.

The surrealism of the everyday

In every paragraph Jim observes the colourful scenes, the smells, the noise and hustle of this third world city which are already full of hundreds of dazzlingly surreal images – or what, for us, living in our boring western cities – are things amazing to contemplate.

The most notable of these are the streetside executions, the stranglings and beheadings. Small crowds gather to watch some Chinese wretch be forced to kneel by several Japanese soldiers, while an officer wielded his ceremonial sword and cut off the offender’s head. The tram lines run red with blood. The streets packed with endless queues of rickshaws and carts and peasants are also lined with corpses.

In many of Ballard’s sci-fi stories the plots, such as they are, seem contrived and forced, or are strangely implausible. But in Empire of the Sun the weirdness arises naturally from the subject matter because the world Jim inhabits is weird, it’s all weird beyond belief, almost every moment brings a tumbling of strange and uncanny images and impressions.

All this Jim reports in his clear lucid way. It’s the world he grew up in. He takes it as normal. And it’s the simple, blank acceptance of the weirdness all around him which really grips the modern reader – the combination of Jim’s matter-of-fact style and Ballard’s clear prose and the astonishments surrounding him. Remember the first hundred or so pages describe everyday life for an expatriate in Shanghai and much of it is exotic and strange enough.

The mania of war

All that’s before the war even starts and Jim enters a world of permanent malnutrition, infection and fever. From this point onwards the reader is given permission to accept the strangeness of what Jim reports or sees, and Ballard is able to get away with some extraordinary sequences and an increasing scattering of his trademark visionary sentences, because it is understood that he is feverish, delirious, and sometimes hallucinating.

He fell asleep on his friend’s bed, under the endlessly circling aircraft that swam below the ceiling like fish seeking a way out of the sky.

There are lots of sentences like that in the book, visionary sentences made up of the simplest components, simple vocabulary, simple grammar, and the power to transport the reader to another plane of experience. Some are simple similes which make the entire situation spring into horrible life.

The hospital patients lay across each other like rolls of carpet.

At one point there is yet another rest break on the long death march to the Nantao stadium, where an exhausted and malnourished Mr Maxted rests on the running board of an abandoned wagon, and:

Mr Maxted reached out and held Jim’s wrist. Gutted by malaria and malnutrition, his body was about to merge with the derelict vehicle behind him.

It is all clear and factual until that final phrase which shifts into an entirely new realm, of hallucination, of drugs, a perception beyond normal human cognition, telling us something important about the infinite malleability of reality.

Recurring themes

Calm Repeatedly other characters are made to say ‘calm down Jim’, or slap him in the face to snap him out of his hysteria, or give him a hug, or tell him to remember he’s British i.e. to keep a grip on himself.

‘Jim…Jim…’ Tulloch placed his hand on Jim’s head, trying to steady the over-excited boy. ‘It’s time you found your father, lad. The war’s over, Jim.’

These repeated injunctions serve to warn us that Jim spends almost the entire book in a state of nervous over-excitement.

Before the war a small English boy would have been killed for his shoes within minutes. Now he was safe, guarded by the Japanese soldiers – he laughed over this so much that the Dutch woman reached out a hand to calm him.

Dr Ransome reached out and gently pressed Jim’s hands to the table, trying to calm him.

In my reviews of Ballard’s stories of the 1970s I had begun to notice how many of his protagonists need calming, are feverish and delusional or become over-excited. Was it Ballard’s own feverishness spilling over into his texts or is it something about his entire attitude to fiction: that it is, by definition, about over-excited people.

Intoxicated by the fermenting potato, Jim giggled at the thought of the deity trapped in the bowels of the earth below Shanghai, perhaps in the basement of the Sincere Company department store. Mrs Philips held his hand, trying to comfort him.

Distilling water In Lunghua Camp, the narrator explains how, in the early days of the internment, a group of British men were tasked with boiling the water taken from ponds in the camp in order to sterilise it, but eventually let the habit fall into desuetude, preferring to get dysentery than expend so much energy. The ceaseless effort involved in boiling water to make it drinkable resurfaces in part two of The Drought where entire communities have to boil seawater to produce fresh water, for me the most haunting story Ballard ever wrote.

Cramped living space In the camp Jim shares a room in the unheated hall of residence of a former training college, with a young British couple and their six-year-old son. They, especially the mother, really resent his presence and rig up a partition carefully defining his quarter of the space. This stifling claustrophobia resurfaces in Ballard’s classic short story Billennium, set in a grossly overpopulated world of the future.

Old American magazines Jim likes to pore over old copies of Life magazine which the American, Basie, gives him, just as Wayne, the central protagonist of the novel Hello America, pores over old Time and Life magazines in the ship carrying the European scientific team to the dead New World.

AMERICA Young Jim adulates everything to do with America, addicted to their magazines, in love with their huge stylish cars, Packards and Chryslers and limousines. When he sees the B29 bomber planes fly overhead it is immediately obvious that nothing the Japanese have can compete with it.

The adulation of America and American culture, at the same time as satirising it, is something you see in British artists from the late 1950s through the 1960s, a notable example being Richard Hamilton and then, in the next generation, David Hockney. (Hockney became famous, at one point, for his vivid depictions of the lush, lazy swimming pools of Los Angeles; insofar as he obsessively depicts abandoned, derelict, drained swimming pools, Ballard is a kind of anti-Hockney.)

America was so obviously the winner of the Second World War, and the explosion of consumer goods it developed after the war was so much the envy of the world, especially in wartorn, exhausted Europe, that maybe it was impossible to resist. Certainly an obsession with Americana drives The Atrocity Exhibition which, on Ballard’s own admission, was presided over by the assassination of President Kennedy, and features a floating population of American consumer goods and Hollywood movie stars, just as the plot of Crash drives towards the mad protagonist’s attempt to stage a fatal car crash with Elizabeth Taylor.

The beauty of planes and shiny machines Even before the war Jim is mad about airplanes, we learn about the model planes he has made and the even better ones made by his boyhood friend, both of them hanging them from strings in their bedrooms. Suddenly the car fetishism of Crash seems less perverse, when you read a description of Jim running his hands over the hard, cold, smooth, beautifully engineered surface of a Zero fighter plane. Even in decay, it is a thing of unspeakable, dizzying beauty.

Jim stopped under the tailplane of a Zero fighter. Wild sugar-cane grew through its wings. Cannon fire had burned the metal skin from the fuselage spars, but the rusting shell still retained all the magic of those machines which he had watched from the balcony of the assembly hall, taking off from the runway he had helped to build. Jim touched the feathered vanes of the radial engine and ran his hand along the warped flank of the propeller.

Terminal documents In the camp Jim has a box full of a random selection of precious objects:

  • a Japanese cap badge given to him by Private Kimura
  • three steel-bossed fighting caps
  • a chess set
  • a copy of Kennedy’s Latin Primer
  • his Cathedral School blazer
  • the pair of clogs he’s been wearing for three years

The idea of a psychologically significant collection of half a dozen random objects like this occurs in the ‘terminal documents’ collected by Kaldren in the 1962 short story The Voices of Time and similar collections of half a dozen or so random items are collected by all the male protagonists of The Atrocity Exhibition stories, beginning with Talbot who owns:

  • a spectrohelion of the sun
  • the front elevation of balcony units, Hilton Hotel, London
  • a transverse section through a pre-Cambrian trilobite
  • ‘chronograms’ by E.J. Marey
  • a photograph taken at noon 7 August 1945 in the Qattara Depression Egypt
  • a reproduction of Max Ernst’s Garden Airplane Traps
  • the fusing sequences for ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Boy’, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs

The idea recurs in 1982’s Myths of the Near Future in which the protagonist Robert Sheppard takes just such a psychic ‘survival kit’, i.e. suitcase of random junk, with him to the Florida jungle.

Random to us. But charged with intense psychological significance for the characters, rescue kits, survival kits, escape kits – talismans to aid mental escape from intolerable situations, such as the one Jim experienced in the camp, and his characters experience in their tortured inner lives.

Magazine pictures are reality Jim cuts out pictures from magazines and pins them to the wall of his little partition. Eventually he confusedly identifies a photo of a couple outside Buckingham Palace with his long-lost parents.

Beside the Packard was a small section that Jim had cut from a larger photograph of a crowd outside the gates of Buckingham Palace in 1940. The blurred images of a man and a woman standing arm-in-arm reminded Jim of his parents. This unknown English couple, perhaps dead in an air raid, had almost become his mother and father. Jim knew that they were complete strangers, but he kept the pretence alive, so that in turn he could keep alive the lost memory of his parents.

This echoes the mentally ill protagonist of The Terminal Beach who cuts out a photo of a little girl and pins it to the wall of the abandoned bunker he’s living in, using it to channel hallucinatory visions of his dead wife and son.

The sky When all human existence on earth seems to be wretched, diseased and violent, where else is there to turn but the sky. Hence Jim’s fairly rational fantasy of one day learning to fly a plane like the young Japanese pilots he sees climbing into their suicide fighters. Hence the altogether more hallucinatory visions he has at numerous moments of himself or other characters or buildings or the world disappearing up into the sky. On the long death march to the Nantao stadium, Jim looks back.

He looked back at the ammunition truck. He was startled to see that hundreds of suitcases lay on the empty road. Exhausted by the effort of carrying their possessions, the prisoners had abandoned them without a spoken word. The suitcases and wicker baskets, the tennis racquets, cricket bats and pierrot costumes lay in the sunlight, like the luggage of a party of holidaymakers who had vanished into the sky.

The sentences are all reasonable and factual, clear and precise right up until that final phrase where the mania takes over. Similarly calm and simple is this statement, made when Jim, tottering with fever and malnutrition decides to climb up the stands of the Olympic stadium.

Jim left Mr Maxted and walked along the running track, intending to follow them, but then cautiously decided to climb one of the stands. The concrete steps seemed to reach beyond the sky.

The sun And at the centre of the sky, is the great ball of energy which drives all life on earth, the sun. The importance of the sun cannot be over-emphasised – overseeing all things – the blistering force and light and heat – with the result that it’s natural that when he thinks of escape it isn’t to anywhere else on earth – the whole world is a battlefield covered in beggars and starved people beating each other to death – the only path of escape is off the earth altogether, upwards, away from the earth, upwards towards the source of all heat and light and, ultimately, meaning. The sun, father of all things, symbol, of course, of the Japanese Empire, until a greater sun comes to eclipse it, the unwatchable sun o the atomic bomb.

A flicker of light ran along the quays like silent gunfire. Jim lay down beside his father. Drawn up above them on the Bund were hundreds of Japanese soldiers. Their bayonets formed a palisade of swords that answered the sun.

In the hour before dusk they entered an area of abandoned battlefields nine miles to the south of Shanghai. The afternoon light rose into the air, as if returning to the sun a small part of the strength it had cast to the indifferent fields.

The ubiquity of the sun as a central symbol mirrors its use in scores of the short stories, where umpteen characters dream of being reunited with the sun, flying into the sun, listening to the music of the sun. Ballard is obsessed with the sun and sunlight and sunshine and sunwarmth which makes it that much more ominous when, in a typically limpid phrase he manages to convey the unsettling effect of the Nagasaki atom blast, whose white light for a moment illuminates the Olympic stadium and its field full of dying Europeans.

Jim stared at his white hands and knees, and at the pinched face of the Japanese soldier, who seemed disconcerted by the light. Both of them were waiting for the rumble of sound that followed the bomb-flashes, but an unbroken silence lay over the stadium and the surrounding land, as if the sun had blinked, losing heart for a few seconds.

The Mustang crash One of the most intense moments in the book is when Jim witnesses a flight of Mustangs flying low over Lunghua airfield as part of an attack on the Japanese planes, only for one of them to be damaged, and:

Jim had never before seen an air attack of such scale. A second wave of Mustangs crossed the paddy fields between Lunghua Camp and the river, followed by a squadron of two-engined fighter-bombers. Three hundred yards to the west of the camp one of the Mustangs dipped its starboard wing towards the ground. Out of control, it slid across the air, and its wing-tip sheared the embankment of a disused canal. The plane cartwheeled across the paddy fields and fell apart in the air. It exploded in a curtain wall of flaming gasoline through which Jim could see the burning figure of the American pilot still strapped to his seat. Riding the incandescent debris of his aircraft, he tore through the trees beyond the perimeter of the camp, a fragment of the sun whose light continued to flare across the surrounding fields.

‘A fragment of the sun’.

World War III Towards the end of the book Jim ceases endlessly pestering the adults about when the war will end – they keep telling him it has ended and since, if anything, the world has immediately become more violent and unpredictable, Jim starts suspecting that the next war – World War III – has already started.

When Basie and the men had gone, vanishing among the ruined warehouses on the quay, Jim studied the magazines on the seat beside him. He was sure now that the Second World War had ended, but had World War III begun? Looking at the photographs of the D-Day landings, the crossing of the Rhine and the capture of Berlin, he felt that they were part of a smaller war, a rehearsal for the real conflict that had begun here in the Far East with the dropping of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bombs.

And anyone with a feel for history knows that the next world war did, in fact, start immediately upon the end of the second one. For most of us in the West it was a low-key, almost invisible cold war, although for the next 45 years we all knew that deep down, all it would have taken was a few buttons to be pressed and – bang!

But where Jim is, in the book, it wasn’t at all a cold war: in China it was hotter than anywhere else in the world. In Europe the fighting stopped, even as the Russians and the Western powers regarded each other with suspicion. But in the East the fighting didn’t stop. Across the huge territory of China the civil war resumed between the communists and the nationalists which wasn’t to end until the communists finally secured control of most of China in 1950. And only a few months later North Korea invaded South Korea triggering the Korean War which lasted from 1950 to 1953.

In his over-excited, confused but prescient way, even right at the end of the novel after he’s been restored to his parents, Jim has the powerful sense that ‘peace’ is not real or normal.

While Yang drove uneasily back to Amherst Avenue… Jim thought of the last weeks of the war. Towards the end everything had become a little muddled. He had been starving and perhaps had gone slightly mad. Yet he knew that he had seen the flash of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki even across the four hundred miles of the China Sea. More important, he had seen the start of World War III, and realized that it was taking place around him. The crowds watching the newsreels on the Bund had failed to grasp that these were the trailers for a war that had already started.

It’s very Ballard to mix the Third World War up with film and newsreels, and brings us much more into the world of his fiction of the 60s and 70s, concerned with the deranging effects of the mass media, movies and advertising on the human psyche.

And it feeds into our understanding of the way the protagonist of The Atrocity Exhibition is obsessed with World War III, but not in any way a historian or soldier would conceive it, but as a purely personal struggle, a psychological battle against the self.

What we are concerned with now are the implications—in particular, the complex of ideas and events represented by World War III. Not the political and military possibility, but the inner identity of such a notion. For us, perhaps, World War III is now little more than a sinister pop art display, but for your husband it has become an expression of the failure of his psyche to  accept the fact of its own consciousness, and of his revolt against the present continuum of time and space. Dr Austin may disagree, but it seems to me that his intention is to start World War III, though not, of course, in the usual sense of the term. The blitzkriegs will be fought out on the spinal battlefields, in terms of the postures we assume, of our traumas mimetized in the angle of a wall or balcony.’

Like Jim, Ballard’s protagonists know that the next war will take place in their heads.

Novel or autobiography

So how true is Empire of the Sun, how accurate is it? How much is truth and how much carefully orchestrated, re-arranged, reconfigured in order to make it into a readable work of fiction? The book has a preface in which Ballard wrote:

Empire of the Sun draws on my experiences in Shanghai, China, during the Second World War, and in Lunghua C.A.C. (Civilian Assembly Centre) where I was interned from 1942-45. For the most part this novel is based on events I observed during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and within the camp at Lunghua.

This sounds candid and open enough. But as you read through the book all kinds of suspicions arise. The overall structure is shaped just so, and designed to foreground highly charged or symbolic incidents – the scene where he watches an American fighter plane crash in a sheet of flames on Lunghua runway; the scene where he confronts the single Japanese pilot walking in despair around the airfield after the army has left; the scene with the Japanese corpse, the scene where he enters the prison hospital to find it an abattoir of rotted flesh infested with swarms of black flies.

And it’s pretty handy that Jim happened to be a) outdoors and b) conscious enough, to witness the white light of the atom bomb. Convenient for an author intent on his symbolism.

Above all there is the suspicious way that the same small number of characters – specifically the American chancer Basie and the good English doctor, Ransome, manage to survive and crop up in successive setups.

The question

After reviewing just the dozen or so more obvious ways in which Empire of the Sun touches on themes and images which recur throughout Ballard’s entire oeuvre, the question is:

Does Empire of the Sun touch on so many of the themes and images which dominate Ballard’s other books because the wartime, boyhood experiences it describes laid the basis for Ballard’s entire imaginarium? Are all the other stories and books attempts to work through, in disguised fictional form, the true-life experiences which are for the first time described in Empire of the Sun with unflinching documentary accuracy? Or –

Does Empire of the Sun contain so many of the themes, images and hallucinatory turns of the phrase that occur in all Ballard’s other fiction, not because it is the source of them – but the exact reverse: because he had to spend all those years developing the obsessive imagery and coolly visionary turn of phrase as ‘objective correlatives’, developing the haunting images and crisp prose style in which he could express the things he saw and lived through?

When Ballard writes that Lieutenant Price, emaciated, with bloodied fists, permanently enraged after years of torture:

calmed himself. He touched the cigarette burns on his chest, tapping out a secret code of pain and memory.

Did he? Did he touch the cigarette burns as if tapping out ‘a secret code’? Or is that the kind of thing Ballard thinks that kind of character ought to do? Is it a true memory, or is it an example of the stylised way Ballard has, over the previous thirty years, come to conceive and write about human beings and which he now systematically projects back onto his experiences, embroidering them, expanding them, elaborating them, posing and positioning them in order to fit the highly artful aesthetic he had developed over all those years?

Was there ever a Lieutenant Price at all, cigarette burns or not – or is he a creation of Ballard’s later, more highly wrought, imagination?

Is Empire of the Sun the truth, which all his other works are based on? Or an extremely artful fiction, which all his other books were a careful preparation for?


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Reviews of other prison camp books

Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard (1982)

‘There is a way out, doctor, a way out of time.’
(Slade to Franklin in News From The Sun)

Ten short stories from Ballard’s middle period, a mixture of contemporary satire, some macabre horror stories and a preview of what would turn out to be Ballard’s breakthrough novel, Empire of the Sun. But at its heart are a couple of Core Ballard tales which perfectly capture his distinctive dystopian landscape of rusting rocket gantries, tropical forests full of jewelled creatures, abandoned motels and drained swimming pools.

1. Myths of the Near Future (1982)

If you’d never read any Ballard before, this 35-page-long story would blow your mind. If, on the other hand, you were familiar with Ballard’s earlier writing, the most striking thing is the repetition and recapitulation of some very familiar images and themes. It’s like a medley of greatest hits.

It’s set in the near future. Some kind of space sickness is afflicting mankind. More and more people experience the same symptoms, avoiding exposure to the sunlight and falling prey to obsessive behaviour. In their final days they become convinced that they were astronauts.

Sheppard was a successful architect. His wife, Elaine, comes down with the illness and is bed-bound in hospital under the supervision of a short, intense physician, Philip Martinsen.

Next thing he knows, Martinsen has absconded to Florida with his wife, who wants to be near the rusting gantries of the old space centre at Cape Kennedy. She writes him letters describing visions of the wonderful jewelled tropical forest which has reclaimed the abandoned towns surrounding the derelict space centre, the empty motels and drained swimming pools.

Sheppard, who had been showing less and less interest in his architecture practice, abruptly closes it, fires everyone, packs a psychic ‘survival kit’ and travels from Toronto down to Miami to try and find Elaine. Here he goes mad. He finds a room in an abandoned motel with – of course – an empty swimming pool littered with broken sunglasses.

But Sheppard is not alone. He is approached by a government psychiatrist, one of a team who’ve been sent by the government to cope with the increasing numbers of deluded folk who think they’re astronauts and who are flocking to the area, Anne Godwin.

She becomes increasingly drawn into his intense and damaged psychic world, eventually posing naked for his pornographic movies, which are more interested in discovering the weird geometries underlying the female body than sex, as such. At night they watch these avant-garde porno movies projected on the bedroom wall.

He explains to Anne that the suitcase of bric-a-brac he’s brought with him is a machine, a time machine, and how it runs on power from the drained swimming pool out front of the motel room. As he climbs down into it, Sheppard explains that the drained pool has a door which opens into another dimension of time, if only he can find it.

At the climax of their relationship he appears to strangle her. All he wants is to set her body free from its constraints of space and time. We are told she fights him off, kicking and biting, and runs off to fetch the police. Later, we are not so sure.

By day Sheppard rents a Cessna light aircraft and skims low over the abandoned territory surrounding the Cape Kennedy space centre which has been completely repopulated by tropical forest. Finally he discovers a strange modernistic nightclub in a clearing and is about to investigate when a man-made glider rears up in front of him, putting him off his flying so he nearly crashes into a tree and only just makes it back to a nearby beach.

This is where the story begins, with Sheppard sitting in a trance state in the cockpit of the wrecked plane and the incoming tide slowly laps at its wheels and then starts rising. He is only saved by Anne Godwin who followed out to the beach in a government Land Rover.

Next day Sheppard sets off by car along the remains of roads through the forest, until he’s forced to abandon the car and continue on foot, in search of the nightclub he saw from the air where he’s convinced that Martensen is keeping Elaine. Here he discovers a submarine world where each twig and branch hangs weightlessly, where light flashes from every leaf in some kind of process of ‘time-fusion’.

The luminosity of everything – the trees, the animals, the plants – seems to derive from the simultaneous existences of multiple moments of time. Everything has become a vision of itself at all moments of its existence.

He could feel the time-winds playing on his skin, annealing his other selves on to his arms and shoulders…

He discovers the forest is covered with man-sized traps Martensen has made. He trips one and Martensen comes running out of the jungle wearing a bird suit, complete with feathered head-dress and wide feathered wings attached to his arms.

Sheppard finally reaches the nightclub and in a dingy room out the back discovers his wife lying in a cage made of polished brass rods. She is extremely malnourished, wasted away, virtually a skeleton. Sheppard knows she is dead, yet she opens her eyes and her skeleton-hand reaches out to seize his arm.

As he unlocks the cage and touches her time floods back into her withered body and she becomes young and beautiful again.

Already her arms and shoulders were sheathed in light, that electric plumage which he now wore himself, winged lover of this winged woman.

Next thing, young Elaine is running along the surface of the river which has frozen solid because of the accumulation of all its moments in time into one concentrated moment, the time-fusion. She is learning to fly. She beckons him.

Sheppard walks towards her through the forest, stopping to pluck birds frozen in time out of the air. One by one he sets them free, then embraces Martensen and sets him free. By this stage the reader strongly suspects that ‘setting free’ means strangling to death. In this life. In this realm. In Sheppard’s realm, he is liberating these time-bound creatures so they can fly free into the multi-dimensional realm of fused space and time which is created by the abandoned space gantries.

Thoughts

Feels like a medley of greatest hits: the bejewelled forest come straight from The Crystal World, the intensity of light-filled hallucinations is the central theme of The Unlimited Dream Company, man-sized gliders appear in The Ultimate City and Hello America, the abandoned gantries of Cape Kennedy appear in numerous stories such as The Dead Astronaut, drained swimming pools appear in countless stories, and the psychic survival kit – a list of five disparate items which includes on Surrealist picture, is a direct repeat of the collection of ‘terminal documents’ which appear in The Voices of Time (1967) and The Atrocity Exhibition (1966-69).

The interesting question is: What purpose does this repetition serve? Does it matter that Ballard was repeating himself, writing the same obsessive sort of story, using the same peculiar imagery? Is it in some ways a plus, an interesting artistic strategy to repeat himself so narrowly and so exactly? Does it give the reader the eerie impression of really becoming caught up in a demented world which extends outwards from Ballard’s texts into the real world?

2. Having a Wonderful Time (1977)

An effective little chiller which combines satire with something more creepy, this story consists of postcards home from Diana who’s gone on holiday to Spain with her husband, Richard, middle manager in a supplier to a Leyland car manufacturer. The beach resort is packed with activities and she has a great time. When the two weeks is up the coach to the airport fails to arrive. As it does the next day, and the day after that. She and the other holidaymakers pass through irritation to anger but then to a kind of acceptance. The days go by, then the weeks. The weather is excellent, there’s lots to do, Diana joins an amateur dramatic society and she gets swept up in the succession of productions they put on.

Meanwhile Richard gets nervy, then causes a big scene with the hotel management, demanding answers, is hustled away and disappears. Weeks later Diana meets him again, innocently sunbathing on a lounger by the beach. He explains to her that the entire Canary Islands have been converted into a dumping ground for the unemployables of Western Europe, not only the huge numbers of working class but the unneeded middle managers as well. The plan is for them never to go home. Richard calmly announces he’s going to recruit a resistance movement and fight their way through to the airport and hijack a fight home.

In her postcards (presumably to a woman friend of the same mentality) Diana dismisses all this as preposterous poppycock. In the next postcard she sadly announces that she’s just attended Richard’s funeral. He had been living in half-built hotels trying to recruit his resistance movement, then had stolen an old motorboat and tried to steer it to Africa, but his body was washed ashore.

Anyway, she’s over her grief and is excited about her next role, playing Clytemnestra in her am-dram society’s next production, Electra (Clytemnestra, be it remembered, murdered her errant husband).

Thoughts

In another short story, Ballard speculates what would happen if the entire middle class of Europe went on package holidays to the beaches of the Mediterranean and refused to come back. Beaches and hotels hold a real obsession for him, as zones of transit, as completely artificial environments, as the location of fake lives and fake dreams and fake existences produced on a kind of industrial scale.

Possibly I’m not the ideal audience for short stories. I couldn’t work out whether this was a clever little time-filler such as you might find in an upmarket fiction magazine, or a ludicrous piece of heavy-handed satire.

3. A Host of Furious Fancies (1979)

Ballard applies his very literal-minded approach to Freud to the Cinderella fairy story.

The narrator starts by telling his presumed companion in a French café not to look at the young women and shuffling old man who have just walked in. He knows the story behind them, which he will proceed to tell:

It’s set in France. The narrator is a dermatologist (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) who specialises in eating disorders, working in the American clinic in Nice. He is intrigued by the client of a colleague of his, a teenage girl, Christina Brossard, who has been referred by a hospice run by nuns. The girl’s father, a successful building contractor and friend of the French President’s, had committed suicide a few years earlier, and the girl had been admitted under the influence of various compulsions, and suffering from skin diseases. Hence the referral to the narrator’s clinic.

He drives up to see first the Mother Superior of the hospice and then the girl. She is on her hands and knees obsessively scrubbing the floor. Later he discovers she’s been obsessively burning all the books in her family mansion and putting them in refuse bags and scrubbing out the fireplaces. The nuns had let her be treated by a trendy psychotherapist who had experimentally used the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin on her. Then the narrator gets a call from the distraught Mother Superior telling him that the therapist and Christina have run off, the girl returning to her ancestral mansion.

To cut a short story shorter, the narrator brings all these elements together to conclude that the girl is suffering from a Cinderella complex: the nuns are the ugly sisters, the hallucinogen turned the pumpkin into a coach and white mice into horses. After the phone call from the Mother Superior he drives out to the girl’s mansion, in the hallway he discovers the huge ornamental clock has been defaced as its hands reached midnight.

This is because a Freudian interpretation of the fairy tale is that, at midnight, the girl’s young and innocent fancy of balls and gowns etc had to give way to the hard reality of sexual intercourse. She had defaced the clock in a confused attempt to stop that moment arriving.

The narrator now believes that the teenage Christina lured her father into an act of incest, making him play out the role of Prince Charming, after which the old man felt so guilty he committed suicide. At which point the girl herself fell prey to immense feelings of guilt and remorse, hence the obsessive cleaning and the skin condition for which the nuns first called him in for his advice.

Now he enters the bedchamber of the rich father to find it covered with pornographic images of centaurs frolicking with naked women. Christina is there, still wearing her hospice tunic, high on the latest dose of psilocybin, scrubbing the fireplace.

The narrator reminds us of the Freudian interpretation of the imagery of the old fairy tale. What is the glass slipper but a transparent and therefore fleshless, guilt-free image of the vagina? And the foot which slips into it? What else but the erect male member? And how else to cure the ill young woman except by… re-enacting, fulfilling and thus purging the fairy-tale narrative?

The narrator crosses the floor of the bedroom, lifts Christina to her feet, and leads her by the hand over to the bed, whispering ‘Cinderella.’

So far, so contrived. Now the story reverts to the present and in an abrupt switch of perspective, we realise that the decrepit old man we’d had pointed out to us, and the confident young woman who is guiding his steps… are Christina and the narrator. Instead of being in control of the situation, somehow, in some spooky, undescribed femme-fatale kind of way, she has sucked him dry and reduced him to a husk, a shadow of his former self: she is the one who became strong and commanding, he is the one who has been reduced to a shambling wreck, forever telling his pitiful tale to whoever will listen.

4. Zodiac 2000 (1978)

This is interesting: a brief introduction explains that it’s intended to be a supposed update of the signs of the Zodiac to be more contemporary i.e. Ballard replaces the conventional Zodiac signs with symbols of contemporary life. But it’s more than that: it’s a reprise of the Atrocity Exhibition technique of making short sections intensely charged with narratives which have been cut back to the bone to make them intriguing and puzzling. Thus each sign doesn’t give a passive definition of the computer or polaroid camera or whatever as it is found in contemporary society. Instead each section tells part of what appears to be an ongoing narrative, featuring the same characters, but in events which are deliberately jumbled up and confused. As in The Atrocity Exhibition I found this a powerful and persuasive technique.

  • The Sign of the Polaroid
  • The Sign of the Computer
  • The Sign of the Clones
  • The Sign of the IUD
  • The Sign of the Radar Bowl
  • The Sign of the Stripper
  • The Sign of the Psychiatrist
  • The Sign of the Psychopath
  • The Sign of the Hypodermic
  • The Sign of the Vibrator
  • The Sign of the Cruise Missile
  • The Sign of the Astronaut

Not only is the structure a rehash of the Atrocity technique but so is the prose style. In these texts we meet old friends like the overuse of the word ‘geometry’ to describe faces and, especially, women’s naked bodies; everyone’s movements are heavily ‘stylised’; and at several points people are caught listening to ‘the time-music of the quasars’.

Again, if you hadn’t read The Atrocity Exhibition I think you’d find this story astoundingly experimental; if you had, then you’d find it an almost nostalgic reprise of those 1960s motifs.

5. News from the Sun (1981)

The longest story in the collection at 41 pages, and another reprise of well-established Ballard motifs.

It’s set twenty or so years in the future when the world is coming down with some kind of sleeping sickness. Everyone is slipping into ‘fugue’ states, at first for only a few moments, building up to hours at a time, then leaving only minutes of consciousness left and then – boom! – you are in a trance forever.

The fugues came so swiftly, time poured in a torrent from the cracked glass of their lives.

Those who enter this final phase are, inevitably, referred to as ‘terminal patients’.

Former NASA psychiatrist Dr Robert Franklin (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) works at a clinic for victims and was one of the first to identify the new ‘time-sickness’. He takes a special interest in Trippett, who happens to be the last astronaut to have walked on the moon. He is visited by his daughter, Ursula, a dumpy member of a nearby hippy commune which has taken over the abandoned site of a solar-based nearby town, Soleri II (‘the concrete towers and domes of the solar city’) named after their architect, Paolo Soleri.

It’s an orgy of Ballard motifs: a doctor running a clinic for people who are conscious less and less of the time is the central narrative of his classic short story The Voices of Time. Franklin drives Trippett out into the desert, as the doctor protagonist of The Voices of Time does. And what do they find? Ballardland:

He had taken a touching pleasure in the derelict landscape, in the abandoned motels and weed-choked swimming pools of the small town near the air base, in the silent runways with their dusty jets sitting on their flattened tyres, in the over-bright hills waiting with the infinite guile of the geological kingdom for the organic world to end and a more vivid mineral realm to begin.

And the Antagonist, there’s always an Antagonist, since at least The Illuminated Man of 1963, there’s always an irrational Opponent. In Myths of the Near Future it’s Dr Martensen, here it’s Slade, former air-force pilot and would-be astronaut, who dive bombs Franklin, Ursula and Trippett as they wander among the fields of derelict solar panels. And this antagonist, like all the others, is trying to seduce and/or kidnap the protagonist’s wife, in this case Marion.

Slade is, of course, flying a microlight, the man-sized flying machine which is the obsessive central image of The Ultimate City and Myths of the Near Future and Hello America. Endless dreams of flying. All the microlight pilots in these stories wear old-fashioned aviator goggles.

Slade had arrived at the clinic seven months earlier and charmed the director, Dr Rachel Vaisey (a feminist thought: it is noticeable that many of the characters in these stories of the 1970s are professional women: the psychiatrist Anne Godwin, the therapist in the Cinderella story is a woman named Dr Valentina Gabor, and now the clinic is headed up by a woman). He starts creating ‘shrines’ to the future from bric-a-brac, the final one being a characteristic assemblage of random elements, exactly the same ‘terminal documents’ which appear in The Voices of Time (1967) and The Atrocity Exhibition (1966-69) and Myths of the Near Future. It consists of:

  • a labelled fragment of lunar rock stolen from the NASA museum
  • a photograph taken with a zoom lens of Marion in a hotel bedroom
  • a reproduction of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory
  • a set of leucotomes whose points were masked by metal peas
  • an organ donor card giving permission for his brain to be transplanted

Vaisey slipped into an affair with Slade which she quickly realised was a mistake and tried to extricate herself. At their last meeting, in her office, Franklin was present and watched while Slade took his penis out, masturbated, then insisted on examining his semen under a microscope.

Franklin feels guilty over his complicity in the space programme which seems to have triggered the epidemic.

As a member of the medical support team, he had helped to put the last astronauts into space, made possible the year-long flights that had set off the whole time-plague, cracked the cosmic hour-glass…

One by one every astronaut involved in the space programme had slipped off into a private reverie, many of them weeping in their sleep, as if the space programme had committed some cosmic crime. And all humanity has been damaged by it:

The brute force ejection of themselves from their planet had been an act of evolutionary piracy, for which they were now being expelled from the world of time.

As regular Ballard readers know, his imagination was liberated by discovering the Surrealist painters as a young man and he often makes reference to them, as Dali above. In this story he twice references the nude women paintings of Paul Delvaux.

Not far away a strong-hipped young woman stood among the dusty pool-furniture, her statuesque figure transformed by the fugue into that of a Delvaux muse.

The Great Sirens by Paul Delvaux (1947)

On the car journey back from the desert, Trippett momentarily comes out of his fugue and speaks for 30 seconds before reverting into trance. This gives Franklin hope. Back at the office he is reprimanded by his boss, Dr Vaisey. He drives back to the abandoned motel with a drained swimming pool which he’s made his base. His wife, Marion, has left cigarette burns and used dresses all over the floor. Franklin drives off and finds her being persuaded by Slade to get into his parked microlight. Franklin’s arrival frightens Slade off, and Marion goes running among the abandoned cars.

At the story’s climax Franklin manages to make it, through the ever-increasing blizzard of blackouts and after crashing his car in a fugue, out to the futuristic solar city. Here he discovers Ursula looking after her father, Trippett and the last four or so pages describe in more detail than any previous Ballard story has, what he’s on about, what the fugues mean – that primeval man lived in a continuous present – that the invention of time was the meaning of The Biblical Fall, a fall into time consciousness which parcels everything out into arid, waste moments – but all the characters’ efforts, no matter how crackpot they may seem, are towards reintegrating all of time past and time future into one multi-faceted permanent moment of transcendental perception.

As the fugues increase in duration, as Franklin and Ursula are reduced to only moments of consciousness per day, they learn to navigate the fugue time, permanent time, with its incandescent light. In other words, in many of the other time-stories you are left with the sense that the characters are mad; but this one gives the most persuasive case yet that they are not, that there really is something to their hallucinations and delusions, and that there really is a way out of time, out of the time psychosis most of us are trapped in and regard as ‘normal’.

Thoughts

Well, it’s a reprise and a rehash of extremely familiar motifs from Ballard’s stories of the 1960s, but as I’ve just said, it takes these ideas and makes a substantial progression on them, shedding new and interesting light onto Ballard’s eerie otherworld.

It adds an extra layer of eeriness to the text that it is made up of so many fragments from previous stories, like a collage, like one of the experimental collage texts Ballard made back in the late 1950s.

So you can either see stories like this as Ballard rehashing old material, or as him using each story to approach the same central insight or tackle the same neurotic symptoms, from different angles, using the same methods and materials, but each time rearranged in a new pattern; rather as the first ten chapters of The Atrocity Exhibition approach the same outline of events, using different characters and incidents, but with the continual sense that you are approaching some huge and overwhelming secret.

This is Core Ballard and even rehashed Core Ballard is a better, more absorbing and more uncanny read than his more straightforward Hammer Horror stories like A Host of Furious Fancies or Having a Wonderful Time. It tends to show them up for the cheesy magazine-fillers that they are.

6. Theatre of War (1977)

A variation on 1967’s The Killing Ground. That story raised the possibility of a worldwide rebellion against the hegemony of the USA, and that American troops were sent in to quell an anti-American government in Britain, and described a small battle which takes place behind desperate English rebel fighters against a bigger, better-armed force of Yanks all taking place, incongruously enough, at Runnymede island by the River Thames.

Ten years later Ballard returns to the same idea, with the notion that the extreme polarisation of British society which took place in the 1970s has led to the outbreak of civil war and that American forces have been sent in to support the unpopular right-wing government (as it had been in Vietnam).

The 22-page-long story is laid out in the format of a shooting script for a World In Action documentary, with sections describing clips of footage, intercut with interviews with GIs or citizens, politicians and insurgent left-wing fighters etc. At first I thought this format seemed dated and contrived, but as I read on it turned out to have a real pull and depth.

The reason why is revealed on the final page in a brief acknowledgements section. All the quotes from the various figures, including the American and British leaders of a government ‘pacification’ expedition to a rural village are actual quotes from Vietnam, pulled from news and magazine reports of the time.

7. The Dead Time (1976)

Unlike anything else Ballard had written, this is a twenty-page description set in a civilian internment camp run by the Japanese just outside Shanghai, China, at the very end of the Second World War. In fact the story begins with the usual Japanese guards who man the gates into the barbed-wire compound mysteriously vanishing, and the unnamed first-person narrator emerging to explore the wartorn landscape around the camp and into the ruined Chinese city.

Quite obviously this was a try-out of some of the material which subsequently was included in Ballard’s full-length, prize-winning account of his experiences as a boy in a Japanese internment camp from 1943 to 45, Empire of the Sun which was published eight years later.

8. The Smile (1976)

One of Ballard’s horror squibs, about a middle-aged narrator who buys a shopwindow mannequin, albeit an arty one found in a junk shop in the King’s Road and named Serena Cockayne, a snip at £250.

He falls in love with it, making the macabre discovery that in fact it is less a mannequin than a stuffed human skin, complete with various imperfections including a mole on her breast.

The story takes a gruesome twist when the narrator calls a young and, he thinks, gay beautician in to freshen up the mannequin, only to come across the said man, a few days later, kneeling at her feet and making some kind of improper suggestion. The narrator throws the man out and slaps Serena in the face, but from then on her swollen lip and distorted nose reproaches him, the years pass, she decays and he feels an increasingly impossible guilt.

At just about this time (1978) Ian McEwan published a short story, Dead As They Come, about a wealthy businessman’s bizarre obsession with a fashion mannequin, which he buys and takes home with him. There was obviously something in the Zeitgeist, some twisted combination of perverse sexuality and anti-consumerism.

9. Motel Architecture (1978)

It’s a little way into the future. Most people live in ‘solariums’, self-contained circular units with a main viewing room containing a battery of TV screens, with a small kitchen and bathroom off to one side. This is where Pangbourne has lived for over twelve years, slowly losing touch with anyone outside, slowly ceasing to take the prescribed physical or psychological exercises.

He is supposedly a TV critic which, as Ballard satirically puts it, is one of only two jobs remaining, the other one being TV repair man. Pangborne long ago lost interest in sex, despite the collection of sex toys in his bathroom, or in his body as a whole. He is happy to sit in his automated wheelchair for the entire day, reviewing classic movies which appear on the large screen in front of him, with multiple copies in the smaller screens constellated around it. In particular he is obsessed with playing the famous shower scene from Psycho over and over again, leaving it freeze-framed at differing moments of the frenzied murder.

His sealed-off little world is disrupted when a new cleaner arrives. The TV screens need periodic cleaning and retuning and this is mostly done by faceless women who’ve never disturbed the even keel of his self-absorption. Until Vera Tilley arrives, over-made-up and loud and brash.

Her arrival coincides with his conviction that there is someone else in the solarium. He can hear breathing, heavy breathing, can almost smell the sweat of some hot intruder. He sets all the CCTV camera on and records flashes of a shoulder, the reflection off a bald head disappearing through a door. There is someone else in the solarium with him.

Long story short: the intruder is himself; he has become schizophrenic (like the murderer in Psycho); thus he finds the body of the young cleaner, Vera, hacked to death in the shower and at first blames him, the intruder. Only on the last page does he realise that it was him all along, that he has become so alienated that his senses detect his body as another person.

Only one way to put an end to this endless intrusion into his peace of mind. And so he raises his knife to stab himself through the heart.

So this story comes under the heading of shilling shockers. I haven’t read many of Roald Dahl’s adult stories but I imagine this is what his Tales of the Totally Expected are like – contrived, atmospheric, at moments genuinely spine-chilling but, in the end, somehow, shallow and silly.

10. The Intensive Care Unit (1977)

The story opens with the narrator warning of ‘a second attack’, looking around at his family strewn around the blood-stained living room, and wondering if they can survive. What is going on? What has happened and is about to happen?

The narrative goes back to establish that it is set in a techno-dystopian future where people live their entire lives via TV screens. The narrator is a doctor (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) who has never had contact with other people. All his clinics are held via TV screens. When he ‘meets’ his wife-to-be it is via a TV diagnosis of her possible breast cancer. Their relationship progresses to them going on dates (i.e. watching the same operas or theatre via TV) going to restaurants (i.e. having the same restaurant-prepared food sent to their sealed apartments). They get married via a multi-screen ceremony with their friends and family all watching from their homes. When they have sex it is screen sex with climaxes tactfully conveyed via cartoons (they never even actually strip off). She is impregnated via artificial insemination and has two children who are both taken away and raised in creches. And so they live their happy screen-based lives for years, each wearing generous amounts of make-up to preserve appearances, as their children grow. The general aim is to create a perfectly affectless society, in which people have no emotional reactions.

But, fatefully, the narrator decides to try an experiment – to meet in the flesh. He has never met anyone in real life before, neither has his wife. On the first attempt, she stops dead in the entrance hall to his apartment block. She turns out to be much smaller, stoop-shouldered and thin-thighed than she appears on TV. Panicking, she flees before they can exchange a word. But the narrator presses on and arranges a second meeting, this time with their children present, 7-year-old David and younger sister Karen.

If the main part of the story is a reasonably traditional dystopia, depicting a future of drones each stuck in their own sealed apartments watching TV screens all day long, the second theme is very different. For the ‘attack’ the narrator mentioned now turns out to be the fact that the four members of this ‘family’, once they met in the flesh, turn out to have murderous intent to each other, and instantly attack each other. The living room is sprayed with the blood they have spilled from each other, attacking each other with knives and scissors. The story had opened in the calm after the initial outburst of ferocious violence and now the narrator is lying seriously injured, wondering when his stabbed son will manage to crawl across the room and make a second assault on him.

The idea implicit in this is that (as per Freud) humans are violent animals and require a lot of socialising via the family unit, a great deal of effort needs to go in to repressing our matricidal, patricidal, and prolicidal urges. Having never met any other humans face to face, this ‘family’ has never had any training in managing these urges and so, the first time they meet triggers an explosion of psychopathic violence.

Commentary

Now, if you are predisposed towards Ballard and his worldview, then you could make the case that he predicted and foresaw a world in which people increasingly live via their screens. If he didn’t, at this stage (1977) have an inkling about the internet, nonetheless his description of the ease and convenience of relationships carried out via screens, in which people do everything up to and including having sex via screens without ever meeting, is eerily prophetic of the way that some, at least, of us live today, 40 years later.

However, like the story which precedes it, Solarium, it fails when set against the real world. For although people in 2020 may to a large extent live via their screens and mobile phones, they still, as far as I can see, go out of the house, go to work, go to the shops, go to pubs and clubs and bars, and actually meet people and interact.

Ballard carries his stories of this type to extremes in order to make his futuristic, satirical point as strongly as possible; but it is this very quality of exaggeration which renders them, after a moment’s reflection, silly and inapplicable. The very purity of the idea renders them irrelevant is useful diagnostics.

I’m writing this in the lunchbreak at my workplace, which about 100 people have commuted to this morning and, although the sales staff are all sitting in front of computers, they’re also continually on the phone to clients or asking each other questions, or walking through to the warehouse to give instructions to the loading crews who themselves spend their entire day discussing the day’s work, allotting roles, co-ordinating with other departments, discussing problems with the pickers and then giving instructions to the drivers: there’s a lot of people running round talking to colleagues and fixing things.

In other words, when reading stories like this, at home, by a computer, in your bedroom, it’s possible to delude yourself that the kind of atomised, alienated, screen-based world Ballard is predicting has somehow come about.

But as soon as you talk to your partner or children, open the door to the Ocado or Amazon delivery guy, speak to neighbours, talk to someone at the supermarket or library or gym, go to school or college or, in particular, get to work and start interacting with hosts of other people, you realise that these alarmist predictions of a totally self-contained, antiseptic, hermetically-sealed TV world are – although they contain a kind of fable or fairy-tale type of imaginative charge – simply not true of the world we live in or are ever likely to live in.

The world Ballard lived in then, and that we live in now, is much more subtle, nuanced and complicated than these short, sharp, shocking and rather silly stories allow.

Conclusion

I may have quibbles with each individual story, but there’s no denying that, taken as a collection, these stories have extraordinary range and diversity, from Second World War China to the overgrown gantries at Cape Kennedy, from the streets of London to the deserts of Nevada, from a future where mankind is afflicted by space disease, to an alternative present where the sleepy Buckinghamshire village of Cookham is caught up in a Vietnam-style war.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds, an the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – by the end this has become a silly sci-fi dystopia set in an America a hundred years from now which environmental catastrophe has turned into one vast arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which as become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up old Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

Low-Flying Aircraft by J.G. Ballard (1976)

Ballard wrote nearly 100 short stories in his fifty-year writing career (1956 to 2006). They were first published in ephemeral sci-fi and avant-garde magazines and then gathered into collections published periodically through the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Nowadays it’s probably best and/or cheapest to read them in the two massive volumes of the Collected Short Stories, but back in the 1970s and 80s I bought each new collection as it came out, and back then they read like reports from a different planet.

I often wonder who compiled and drew up the running order for these collections, because of the odd way they mix up early and later stories, creating jarring shifts in tone and subject matter. Low-Flying Aircraft contains nine short stories covering the decade from 1966 to 1975 when a lot happened, both in the wider world and in Ballard’s style. Reading them in publishing order they amount to snapshots of his evolving style and approach. I’ve arranged the stories in Low-Flying Aircraft according to dates of composition, as indicated by this authoritative-looking webpage:

Five types of Ballard story

There are probably scores of categories you could apply to Ballard’s short stories. Five categories suggest themselves from this selection:

  • Gags – jokes, boom-boom semi-humorous stories such as the one about TV producers sexing up the Battle of Waterloo, or the rise and fall of interest in the discovery of God, thin one-gag wonders.
  • Tales of the unexpected which are utterly traditional in form and tone but cover an eerie or spooky subject – like The Lost Leonardo in which all the characters are totally respectable middle class types tracking down a valuable oil painting which has been stolen, and – in this collection – The Comsat Angels whose protagonists are nice, middle-class BBC television producers who stumble on an awesome conspiracy. Their middle-class milieu recalls the sensible characters in Conan Doyle or Wells who make mind-bending discoveries.
  • Experimental – The Atrocity Exhibition was the high point of Ballard’s experiments with form: The Beach Murders is written in the same style and format as The Atrocity Exhibition chapters – short paragraphs given their own headings – but applied to create a kind of avant-garde spoof of the then-fashionable subject of spies and espionage. I can see why it was left out, it would have spoiled the intense homogenous atmosphere of Atrocity.
  • Dead astronauts – Ballard wrote so many stories about characters obsessed with dead astronauts trapped in orbiting space capsules which can be seen from earth as silver dots crossing the sky that they count as a distinct category: A Question of Re-Entry, A Cage of Sand and, in this collection, The Dead Astronaut.
  • Psychosis stories – The Terminal Beach is the classic Ballard story about a character whose obsession leads him into another psychic zone and who stops caring for his body, slowly starving to death, and the trope of the terminal zone of abandoned resorts, empty hotels and drifting sand dunes as a location for social and mental breakdown dominates The Dead Astronaut and Low-Flying Aircraft.
  • Dystopias Dystopias deal with futures in which disaster has struck the human race, the subject of his first three novels (The Drowned WorldThe Drought and The Crystal World). Over a decade later, the two longest stories in this collection – Low-Flying Aircraft and The Ultimate City – are also dystopias.

1960s stories

The Beach Murders (1966)

The Atrocity Exhibition was the high point of Ballard’s experiments with form: The Beach Murders is written in the same style and format as The Atrocity Exhibition chapters but I can see why it was left out. It uses the same experimental approach but applied to a different subject matter and it is a joke.

It consists of 26 paragraphs each with a key word or phrase arranged in alphabetical order (Iguana, Jasmine, Kleenex) and each paragraph, as in the Atrocity Exhibition, depicts a different scene or moment or tableau, with the same cast of characters but with the events arranged out of sequence to deliberately confuse.

And what it’s depicting is some kind of spy narrative in which a Russian princess is securing plans for some kind of new technology developed by Lockheed, an Old Etonian English ambassador, a Russian assassin and so on. It is a spoof of a James Bond plot done in the style of Ballard’s experimental fiction. It was originally titled Confetti Royale, a blatant reference to the spoof Bond film Casino Royale. It is a spoof of a spoof. Hence its non-inclusion in the much more serious Atrocity collection.

The Greatest Television Show on Earth (1966)

This is one of those cheap thrill, one-gag, squib science fiction stories that you feel any competent science fiction hack could have written, it barely has the Ballard touch at all.

Time travel is discovered in the year 2001 but instead of giving rise to wars or the dislocation of timelines by people travelling back and changing the past etc, it is played for satire and laughs as Ballard explains that the new technology is quickly bought out by television companies who garner enormous global audiences by sending TV cameras back (in a secure time bubble) to cover super-famous historical events such as the inauguration of Roosevelt, the assassination of Kennedy (inevitably), the signing of Magna Carta, the discovery of America.

The TV companies quickly realise people like spectaculars and so a new genre is formed of war specials, with all the highlights of World War Two covered ‘live’ including Hitler committing suicide in his bunker. Producers then go back further to the First World War which turns out to be a grim and muddy disappointment. but not as much as the Battle of Waterloo, which turns out to have been fought by a lot fewer soldiers than contemporaries claimed, and most of them sick with dysentery.

At which point an enterprising assistant producer suggests recruiting more ‘extras’. Slipping into contemporary costume and armed with gold sovereigns TV researchers and producers fan out across the countryside to pay awe-struck peasants to don army uniforms and take part in the slaughter. With the help of arc lights and careful choreography that Battle of Waterloo is turned into an altogether more ratings-worthy spectacle.

Satire. Suddenly TV producers take to improving history. I particularly liked the way that, after discovering how small Hannibal’s trek over the Alps really was, the producers hired a whole load more elephants and elephant trainers and trounced the unexpecting Romans. And so on.

Finally the tendency reaches its peak with a well-advertised programme which will cover the Parting of the Red Sea ‘live’ on Time Travel TV. As you might expect from t his kind of story, what happens is that when the Israelites (a relatively small mob of scruffy looking survivors) arrive at the red Sea with the chariots of the Pharaoh on their heels, something dramatic really does happen. A strange light appears in the sky and the cameras all go dead. A little while later a few flicker back to life to show the scene, the Israelites have crossed, half Pharaoh’s army has drowned, but so have most of the best Time Travel TV producers, washing about in the flotsam of the flood along with the wrecked TV cameras and stands.

Almost as if ‘someone up there’ doesn’t like being mucked about with.

The Life and Death of God (1966)

A similar rather hammy story, this is also a satire on the notion that there might actually be a God and how humanity would react. The story traces the rise and fall of humanity’s reaction to the news that there is a God which – briefly – passes through a bell curve: from rumours, anticipations and excitement – to wonder, awe and amazement when the news is officially announced – and then a slow slide back to indifference and business as usual.

The announcement is made by scientists that, behind the background low radiation level of the universe they have discovered a permanent low-level hum of ultra microwaves which permeate all things. Not only this, but this radiation contains ‘a complex and continually changing mathematical structure’ which appears to change when observed i.e. responds and ‘thinks’.

So first the awed reaction: the population of the world is stunned by the news that there is a conscious, intelligent mind permeating all matter. The religions of the world come together. the churches and temples and mosques are all packed out. Everyone behave morally. Lots of people walk out of work now God is known to exist. Advertising, with all its mendacious lies, stops, as does most of government. Wars stop. Peace breaks out everywhere. Old enemies sign pacts of friendship, armies are disbanded, and so on.

However, this begins to have impacts. Farmers harvest the autumn crop but show no particular enthusiasm to prepare for the following year. Law and order has ceased as no longer necessary, but this is followed by a wave of spectacular crimes. In this ‘real world’ mode, Ballard’s imagination always reaches for the most obvious, cheesy and clichéd of subjects, so when he thinks of audacious crimes this means bank robberies in the Mid-West which are reminiscent of Al Capone, an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels, and someone slashes the Mona Lisa in Paris.

Worried by the way their flocks – everyone’s flocks – are not attending church or temple anymore – the world’s religious leaders announce that they might have been a bit hasty when they announced the existence of a caring loving God. It has become clear that this subtle mathematical matrix may be there but… does it think? Can it talk to us? Does it answer prayers? Does it have ‘moral’ values?

The religious leaders are followed by philosophers: the idea of an omnipotent deity limits mankind. An American politician denounces the discovery, saying his country is built on the notion of unlimited expansion and progress, which refuses to be checked by some so-called scientific discovery.

The team of astronomers find themselves under siege, forced to give another press conference where they are attracted from all angles by all the aspects of society who have a vested interest in there not being a God.

Meanwhile life is becoming unattractive. So many people have quit their jobs that nothing works. Cars break down and can’t be repaired. The shops are empty because factory workers have gone off to commune with God. Meanwhile the churches and mosques and temples have become more choosy – only accepting an elite of believers who pledge to put their faith in the church’s hierarchy and specific written doctrines, rejecting the wishy-washy-pantheism which has swept the world.

There’s a series of natural disasters: a landslide in Peru kills villagers, an iceberg sinks a supertanker. Then war breaks out: the Arabs and the Israelis go at it again; China invades Nepal; Russian nuclear subs are discovered on manoeuvres in the Atlantic.

The satire is brought home as Ballard describes the way most people have drifted back to work: they need the money. And so Christmas decorations appear in all the shops which start filling up with goods again. Carol concerts are held. Mendacious adverts slowly start reappearing on TV. Before you know it, the world is back to business as usual.

The satire is rammed home in the last sentence of the story which announce that, in all the festivities, most people miss the publication of what the Church claims to be the most far-reaching religious statement of all time, an encyclical with the title God is Dead.

Response

Stories like this… I don’t know. They bring a smile to the lips. They’re amusing, this one is cleverly done.

But you read it knowing it makes absolutely no contribution to your understanding of the world. Its mood is one of a clever teenager who has just discovered cynicism, just discovered that grown-ups may not be driven by the purest motives after all. But it hasn’t even begun to take stock of the real complexities of the actual world. It’s made up of headline organisations and headline crimes and has a kind of similarly superficial, newspaper headline level of content. It is the opposite of subtle.

The Comsat Angels (1967)

Comsat is trendy 60s-speak for communications satellites, the new phenomenon of a series of satellites put into geostationary orbits around the earth which allowed the beaming of live television and radio communication in an unprecedented scale.

The narrator, James, is a BBC documentary maker. His boss, Charles Whitehead, the editor of the BBC’s Horizon series, asks him to look into the latest ‘child genius’, Georges Duval, who’s been presented with great publicity in France. James flies over with his boss to interview him, noting the smart villa the teenager lives in with his mother, and the slightly sinister adult man who supervises the interview. Back in the office, on a whim, the narrator starts investigating the history of ‘child prodigies’ which in fact stretches back twenty years or more. He goes off to try and interview an English child prodigy based in Canterbury, has difficultly tracking him down, and discovers his mother has moved to – or been set up in – a nice villa, with a tended garden, and an odd air of detachment. Like the French child prodigy, this one’s father disappeared early in his life.

Back in the office again the narrator discovers that his boss has been doing some research of his own and now has a wall covered with photos, newspaper cuttings and so on. These show the creepy fact that all the child prodigies look the same, with the same high bony forehead and faraway stare. Whitehead has established that the so-called child prodigies never went to university or on into brilliant careers in science of the arts, but without exception disappeared from mainstream view. Now Whitehead has dug up the fact that, without exception, they have silently risen to positions of power. He shows the narrator the photos of the strikingly similar-looking young men in a range of press photos: one is adviser to the leader of the Soviet Union, one is an adviser to President Johnson in America, one is photographed between Mao and Chou En-Lai in Beijing, one is working with Britain’s leading space scientist at Jodrell Bank, another one is a senior adviser in NASA.

Suddenly it dawns on the narrator that there are twelve of them. Like the twelve apostles! Suddenly he realises that the twelve are preparing for the return of… Him! The stage is being set so that all the powers of the earth recognise Him when He returns. As the narrator pithily puts it: ‘This time there will be no mistakes’. And the reader is meant to feel a spooky thrill of understanding shiver down his or her spine!

The Dead Astronaut (1967)

Now this has the true Ballard vibe. It reads like an anthology of early-period obsessions and is a prime example of the strange, wintry beauty of his prose.

Cape Kennedy has gone now, its gantries rising from the deserted dunes. Sand has come in across the Banana River, filling the creeks and turning the old space complex into a wilderness of swamps and broken concrete. In the summer, hunters build their blinds in the wrecked staff cars; but by early November, when Judith and I arrived, the entire area was abandoned. Beyond Cocoa Beach, where I stopped the car, the ruined motels were half hidden in the saw grass. The launching towers rose into the evening air like the rusting ciphers of some forgotten algebra of the sky.

It’s set in the future, 20 years since the last rockets left the gantries at Cape Kennedy. Now the entire area is abandoned and rusting. The narrator is Philip. Twenty years earlier he had been a senior flight programmer at NASA, at the time when the whole space programme was moved to New Mexico. He seems to have been an ‘item’ with a fellow NASA employee named Judith, but soon after the move to New Mexico she fell in love with one of the trainee astronauts, the albino Robert Hamilton. They played tennis etc in the all-American way.

A year later Hamilton was dead, his space capsule hit by a meteorite. For all those years his derelict space capsule has circled the earth, one of twelve capsules carrying dead astronauts who’d died in various mishaps. One by one they fall back to earth, attracted by the homing beacon left active at Cape Kennedy.

Now Philip has driven with Judith down to the Cape because it is time for Robert Hamilton’s space capsule to fall to earth. The entire area is a) utterly derelict and abandoned and covered with drifts of sand b) policed by wardens c) haunted by the relic hunters, who scavenge the crashed capsules, selling mementos illegally on the black market.

Philip and Judith have come well prepared and in the knowledge that they have to a) break through the wire perimeter fence and b) make contact with one of the scavengers, hard-eyed, beak-faced, scarred-handed Sam Quinton. They give him five thousand dollars. He shows them to a ruined but habitable motel room, and promises to bring them Hamilton’s remains.

In the days they spend waiting, there is unusual activity by the authorities. The army appear, driving half-tracks, roaming around the abandoned concrete aprons, Quinton says it’s unusual, but they’ll get to the wreck before the army. Then the capsule descends, roaring past in a giant blade of light followed by a loud crash and explosion. Judith runs to the crash site, staggering dazed among the flaming flecks of metal embedded all over the sand. Ballard’s writing is brilliantly vivid.

Shortly after midnight, at an elevation of 42 degrees in the northwest, between Lyra and Hercules, Robert Hamilton appeared for the last time. As Judith stood up and shouted into the night air, an immense blade of light cleft the sky. The expanding corona sped toward earth like a gigantic signal flare, illuminating every fragment of the landscape.

Quinton and his two fellow scavengers hustle Judith and Philip back to the motel and soon return with various souvenirs including a box containing the dead astronaut’s remains. Judith and Philip remain in the motel room on Quinton’s suggestion, the army are roaming everywhere, any movement will be detected, they’ll all be arrested. Judith pores over the pathetic bundle of sticks and grey ash which is all that’s left of Robert Hamilton.

After a few days, Philip and Judith fall ill. They feel weak, can’t keep food down, vomit, hair starts falling out, skin blistering. Army half-tracks come closer as they continue their search of the area. Philip hears the message they’ve been broadcasting over loudspeakers for days, something about radioactivity.

In a flash he realises they both have radiation poisoning. Hamilton’s capsule was carrying a bomb, an atom bomb. Philip is well aware that all this time Judith has carried an obsessive torch for her one-time lover. Now it has killed both of them.

A Place and a Time to Die (1969)

A political satire leavened with a soupcon of Ballardian alienation. The Chinese army has invaded America. The word ‘Chinese’ doesn’t actually appear anywhere but the vast army plays gongs and bells, its soldiers wear the puffy quilted jackets the Red Army wore during the Korean War, and have yellow faces.

But the focus of the story is on three inhabitants of a little American town in the mid-West. Everyone has fled before the advancing horde except Mannock, the retired and eccentric police chief, the trigger-happy right-wing fanatic Forbis, and a wild-eyed Marxist Hathaway, who can’t wait for the commies to liberate him.

There’s a few pages of bad-tempered interplay between this cracked trio as they dig in to their home-made bunker on this side of the river, while the vast army camps out on the other side and sends a few engineers to scout out the bridge.

But the punchline is that when the Asiatic horde invades, streaming over the river in thousands of boats and pouring up the other bank like termites, as Mannock and Forbis prepare to make a heroic last stand – the Chinese ignore them. They just push past them, ignoring their pathetic little defences and peashooter guns, horde upon horde, even children carrying guns, women carrying nothing but the Chairman’s little red book. The scene is a symbol of the trivial futility of the Western worldview with its cowboy heroism when set against the inconceivable scale of the Chinese population.


1970s stories

My Dream of Flying to Wake Island (1974)

A beautifully poised and tragic story. Set in an abandoned resort (like the abandoned resort in Low-Flying Aircraft anmd the abandoned sand dunes of Cape Kennedy in The Dead Astronaut) Melville discovers a crashed Second World War bomber buried in the sand.

The migraines are coming back, reminders of the ECT shocks which were themselves part of the treatment for the severe head injuries he suffered, we are told, as an RAF pilot who was in a plane crash. Metal plates had to be inserted in his head.

When he is lowered into the cockpit of a Messerchmitt which another plane hunter is excavating further down the coast he has his first ‘fugue’, defined as: ‘a loss of awareness of one’s identity, often coupled with flight from one’s usual environment, associated with certain forms of hysteria and epilepsy.’

During his recovery he became obsessed with Wake Island, a refuelling site on a small island in the middle of the Pacific, barely more than a collection of concrete runways and shacks. Its utter isolation and complete psychological reduction to a basic function for some reason has gripped Melville’s imagination.

He is being supervised by Dr Laing who asks him why he needs to fly to Wake island, and about the B-17 he’s spending all his time excavating from the sand. Laing introduces him to an amateur pilot who incessantly flies her Cessna over the dunes. She is Helen Winthrop. Melville drives over to the small airfield and introduces himself. He is knowledgable about planes. Helen explains that she’s planning to break the record for flying the length of Africa to Cape Town. Melville can help her fit long-distance fuel tanks. She is attracted by his intensity and they have a short-lived affair. But, it is revealed in a throwaway detail, she can’t cope with his constant nervous vomiting.

Only now, in the final pages of this brief but fantastically concentrated story, do we learn that Melville wasn’t a pilot who had a crash – he was an astronaut, and the first astronaut to have a nervous breakdown in space, his nightmare ramblings disturbing the millions of viewers watching the space flight on TV. Hence the ECT and attempts at therapy.

He takes it for granted that Helen will abandon her plans and fly with him to Wake. He assures her they’re going to do it, no matter how many times she tells him she has spent to much time preparing for her Africa flight. One day she takes off without warning him. The sound of the engines tells him her plane is fully loaded. Within an hour or so he’s completely forgotten about her as he works away, continuing to excavate the ruined B-17 from the sand. With part of his mind he knows it will never fly, that he’ll never in fact finish excavating it since the wind is constantly blowing the sand dunes back over it. But with the happy part of his mind he knows that if he works hard enough, he’ll soon be flying to Wake Island.

Some of the details, in fact the entire plot can be accused of being overwrought. But the beauty is in the care with which Ballard deploys the details so as to slowly reveal the true reason for Melville’s exile to the abandoned resort, the tremendous lightness of touch with which he paints in the handful of brief conversations the troubled young man has with Dr Laing, and the daintiness with which he sketches the brief failed relationship with Helen.

It’s this handling of the content, as much as the content itself, which makes this short story feel like a masterpiece.

Low-Flying Aircraft (1975)

It’s forty years in the future. Mankind has suffered a catastrophic collapse. Suddenly almost all children born were horribly deformed, their eyes revealing the optic nerves and grotesque genitals. All over the world people took to killing newborn babies or having abortions. The birth-rate actually went up, but the infanticide exceeded it.

Now all of Europe contains only 200,000 people, America 150,000. In another generation mankind might die out. Richard Forrester works for the UN in a much-reduced Geneva, population 2,000, going on trips to the abandoned cities of Europe to do a stock check of the leftover food, drink, cars and clothes and all the other detritus of an abandoned civilisation.

Now his wife has got pregnant again, for the eighth time and, hoping against hope, they have come to the almost completely abandoned Spanish resort of Ampuriabrava, where the sand has blown free for decades and completely overflowed the streets and the abandoned hotels. Only an old couple tend the hotel Forrester and his wife ‘check into’, that’s the entire population of the place, apart from a mysterious Dr Gould, who insists on going out flying in his private propeller-plane every morning.

Forrester and his wife Judith disapprove of Gould flying along the half-ruined runway. One day while his wife sleeps, Forrester notices from the balcony of their hotel room a mystery woman loitering in the shadow of the hangar. Spurred on by lust, Forrester makes his way through the sand-covered town, walking over the roofs of cars almost buried in sand, to the hangar to find the attractive woman wearing dark glasses and a shawl but, as he steps in out of the sunlight, taking her shoulder, she steps back startled and treads on the sunglasses which have fallen from her face.

With a bolt of shock Forrester realises she is a mongoloid, what we would call a Downs Syndrome. In the story this is regarded as a type of deformity or mutant.

Later, after Gould lands, the two men go for a drink and Gould tells her story. He offers to take Forrester on his next flight, next morning. Terrified by the take-off along the crumbling runway, Forrester calms down as they fly into the mountains where, to his surprise, they find a solitary bull, obviously a mutant, surprised because all livestock were slaughtered decades earlier.

Now he learns what Gould flies off to do every morning. He had loaded up the plane with fluorescent paint in its load bay. Now he releases a line of the paint and trails it up the side of the field and into the mountains. For some reason the bull follows it, its malformed eyes capable of ‘seeing’ the shiny paint line.

Gould and Forrester land back on the crumbling airstrip in Ampuriabrava and, returning to the half-abandoned hotel where they’re staying, Forrester discovers that the Spanish practicante or doctor has been to visit Judith and told her that, alas and inevitably, the baby is malformed. After the doctor left, Judith ‘went out’, looking upset.

Forrester fetches Gould to help him then goes running through the sand-choked streets of the abandoned resort, calling her name. They find her in the honeymoon suite of one of the euphemistically named ‘Venus hotels’. She had put on sexy lingerie and see-through clothes etc, and wandered through the hotel stripping them off and sobbing in anguish that she was carrying yet another malformed baby. Now Forrester comforts her as she weeps her heart out.

Once she is put to bed back in their hotel room and given some tranquilisers, Gould has a conversation with Forrester out on the balcony overlooking the abandoned beach resort, covered in sand. What, he asks, if the deformed babies aren’t deformed at all? What if they are the next stage in evolution? What if the industrial scale massacring of them has been a massive social and scientific mistake? What if they – despite looking deformed to us – are the next stage? Forrester is shaken, as he has been by Gould’s kindness in taking the Mongol woman in, and his care for the remnants of the mutant cattle up in the mountains.

A few weeks later, Judith has the baby the natural way and they hand it over to the praticante to get rid of in the usual way (whatever that is). But Forrester follows the Spaniard down into the lobby and there takes the baby from him, swaddling it up and carrying it across town to the ruined airfield and quickly hands it over to Gould’s Spanish Mongol lady. She will bring it up. Maybe the is the Eve of a new race of humanity, who knows…

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This is the first Ballard story I read which seems to have been done by rote, on automatic.

When Gould tells us that the mongol woman he has taken in and is protecting has an enormous collection of clocks and watches, that they are all set to different times, and that he thinks she uses them as a kind of ‘computer’, it’s strange and eerie, alright, but doesn’t have the shock of the genuinely uncanny which the much earlier story, The Voices of Time, give you. or the description of mad Talbot constructing a sculpture made of bits of broken mirror and coathanger on the roof of Catherine York’s apartment block so he can build a corridor to the sun. They felt genuinely weird. This version of the same kind of thing is echt Ballard, alright, but somehow without the feeling.

Or take the ‘Venus Hotels’. According to Ballard these were set up in every city in the West when the population collapse first became evident. They were built with the sole intention of getting people to copulate and reproduce and so are packed full of every possible sex aid, sex mags and sex films available on demand. In the early to mid 1970s when this story was written, the notion of the government setting up sex hotels was probably still scandalous and shocking, and also had some satirical kickAnd yet… and yet…

What seems to have happened is that Ballard is no longer surprised at himself and so no longer surprises the reader. Two key elements of his writing from the 1960s have gone:

  1. the extraordinary verbal lushness which makes the first three novels such a sensual treat to read
  2. the strange and bizarre poetry he coaxed out of the language with the regular use of scientific and mathematical terminology – the geometry of naked bodies, the planes of the face creating jarring angles – the most Ballardian of the 1960s stories are full of this kind of language

Somehow, by the mid-1970s, the fantastically lush prose style and/or the weird way with language have disappeared. The abandoned hotels, the deserted resorts, the alienated characters and the disastrous scenarios are all still there, but described somehow, with a practiced smoothness.

Weird and disturbing though they still are, in some ways, in another way which is difficult to define, the stories have somehow become more routine, more pedestrian.

The Ultimate City (1975)

This long short story, or novella of 90 pages or so takes up half the book’s 180 pages.

It is a dream. Maybe this is the way to think of Low-Flying Aircraft as well. They are not realistic stories, they are more like fantasias in which various familiar elements are rearranged to create new effects, like a painter experimenting with different ways of composing a scene.

The Ultimate City is set fifty or so years in the future after the end of the Petrol Age. The oil has run out and as it dwindled to an end, the population of the earth dwindled in step, people failing to reproduce, as if exhausted. By the end there weren’t many of them left so it was relatively easy for the survivors to migrate from the no-longer-functioning cities out to the countryside and create new, ecological friendly, vegetarian communities run on renewable energy, wave and solar power etc.

Strange how some of us have known for so very very long that our oil-based economy was wasteful and wrecking the planet but it hasn’t made the slightest impression on the real world. 45 years ago Ballard wrote how the post-industrial community’s renewable technologies

had progressed far ahead of anything the age of oil and coal had achieved, with its protein-hungry populations, its limitless pollution of air, earth and sea. (p.16)

‘Its limitless pollution of air, earth and sea.’, Yes, that’s us alright.

Right from the start this background story creates a kind of dreamy atmosphere of wish fulfilment. It is all so convenient and pat and just so. The Age of Oil came to an end. The population gracefully declined. The remainder established harmonious and idyllic rural communes which still benefited from advanced technology. Compare and contrast with the ends of the world foreseen in The Drowned World and The Drought, which are both more fractious, stricken and violent. The salt beach scenes of The Drought are still giving me nightmares.

By contrast every aspect of The Ultimate City seems to take place underwater, in slow motion, as if in a dream sequence of a film.

We are introduced to Halloway, a young man (aged 18) whose inventor parents died in a house fire when he was small. Now he takes part in the annual glider building contest held by his little commune of 300 or so souls. He has been building a particularly big, sleek and powerful one to a blueprint left by his dead father. But when the day of the competition comes and his band of schoolboy assistants help him run the glider along its launch track and into the sky, instead of looping above the community and landing in a nearby field as he’s meant to, Halloway sets off the ten miles to the abandoned city.

Halloway’s arrival in the abandoned city gives Ballard full rein to indulge his favourite subject and describe every aspect of a modern high-tech city which has been left utterly abandoned and derelict.

But above and beyond the long wide avenues lined with abandoned cars and telegraph wires strewn everywhere, there is a typically eerie Ballard touch in the way Halloway discovers among the wreckage strange monuments, huge pyramids built out of old TV sets or washing machines, strange psychic memorials to the dead technologies.

Somewhere in the streets’ echoing canyons he hears an engine and the sound of smashing glass. Freaked out, Halloway decides it’s time to head back to the country and sets off towards the ruined suspension bridge across the river which separates city and country. He gets as far as a vast abandoned airport whose runways are full of gleaming cars, all models, arranged in neat rows (you realise that quite often Ballard is simply expressing the surrealism implicit in consumer society). He discovers a truck whose engine still works. He starts it and drives at full pelt out the airfield gates but has never driven before, so crashes into a roundabout, the truck skewing on its side and he loses consciousness.

When Halloway comes round he is being tended by a kindly young black guy who can’t speak but punches words into a sort of pocket calculator which he’s rigged up to display his words on a screen, so he can converse.

His name is Olds. Half Olds’ face is covered in scars. As a boy he was run over by a housewife driving her classic Oldsmobile to the scrap yard, thus becoming the last traffic accident in the world. He was in hospital and recovering for years, leaving him damaged, traumatised. A few years ago he changed his name to Olds in honour of the make of car which ran him over.

Olds is very like the figure of Melville in Dream of Flying to Wake Island. He too had a traumatic crash/accident. And just as Melville has a ‘fugue’ or mental freeze episode when he climbs into the cockpit of the ruined Messerchmitt, so Olds goes into a fugue state when Holloway tactlessly suggests starting up one of the Oldsmobile motor cars in his collection.

Collection? Yes, it turns out that Olds, like Melville, has set himself an obsessive task – he is restoring the abandoned cars. One by one he is rewiring, oiling and filing the gas tanks of one of each brand of motor car. It is a quest. When he’s finished restoring one of each brand, he explains to Halloway, he will be free.

But he has another obsessive desire, too. He wants to fly. When he learns from Halloway that the latter flew into the city he is enraptured. ‘Take me to your crashed glider,’ he says. ‘I’ll repair it. And then you can teach me to fly!

So they load up into one of the lorries Olds has restored and he drives them back into the city to find Halloway’s crashed glider. But on the way they find themselves behind a huge industrial tractor-type machine which trundles along bearing vast pincers big enough to pick up entire cars. It is being driven by Stillman, a thug in a leather jacket. Olds knows all about him, and they follow the monster rig as it heads towards one of the abandoned city’s central plazas.

And here Halloway is introduced to the two other characters in this strange, abandoned, dream city – Buckmaster ‘Viceroy, czar and warden of this island’), an ageing architect and visionary, and Miranda, his beautiful daughter.

A few carefully planted references are all the reader needs to realise that these characters are taking part in a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with

  • Buckmaster as the impresario Prospero
  • Miranda his beautiful daughter (‘Sometimes I feel like the daughter of a great magician’)
  • the slender Negro Olds as a crippled Ariel who dreams of flying free
  • and Stillman, the surly, grunting ex-convict, wearing leather jackets, who can barely control his anger and aggression, as a hoodlum Caliban

Halloway discovers it is Buckmaster who has conceived and supervised the building of the strange psychic memorials to the vanished petrol civilisation of the city – the ziggurats of TVs, washing machines and so on – and is now creating his masterpiece in the city’s abandoned central plaza, a four-hundred-feet-high pyramid of dead cars!

Halloway is accepted on easy terms by the other characters, chats to Buckmaster who gives his version of how the old Oil Civilisation declined and fell.

But Halloway is himself now seized by a vision and a dream: If Olds can rewire and refuel old vehicles, why can’t he do same to an entire city block? And so Halloway recruits the inhabitants of the island into his obsessive vision to set up petrol-powered generators in an entire city block next to the plaza, and to re-activate the old abandoned police station, the cinema, theatre, office blocks, the derelict supermarkets and corner stores, as well as traffic signs and neon hoardings – to restore the city – in the shape of one of its sub-divisions – back to its loud, garish, polluted heyday.

And it works. Olds works overtime, on the understanding he can work on Halloway’s glider in his spare time, and sets up petrol generators which restore energy to all the buildings, the street lights and digital displays. Buckmaster approves and, in a decisive moment, Stillman switches his allegiance from building the pyramid of cars to reviving the parts of the city which take his fancy, the nightclubs and dives. Soon he is dressing in a snappy black suit and driving a gangster’s white limousine.

(We learn that 25 years earlier Stillman had met Buckmaster at the school of architecture, had an affair with the industrialist’s third wife, then killed her in a lover’s quarrel. And was locked up for twenty years, thus becoming the last murderer to be tried and convicted before the great migration, as Olds was the last road traffic victim. They are all symbolic figures. When Stillman was finally released – at Buckmaster’s request, he was incensed to discover the sexy, funky city life he had spent 18 years fantasising about returning to, had utterly ceased to exist. That explains the savage fury with which he drives his enormous machines around the city wilfully steamrollering over cars and smashing shop windows.)

There is a dreamily comic scene where a rescue party from Halloway’s old commune arrive on environmentally friendly yacht across the sound, dock and punctiliously cycle the five miles or so from the docks to the central plaza. But here Halloway has arranged a suitably high octane, testosterone-fuelled reception. as they enter the plaza at dusk, Halloway throws all the switches, the neon lights and streetlamps come on, the sound form a hundred record players booms out over the square then he jumps into the renovated police car he likes to drive while Stillman terrorises the quaking cyclists in his pimpmobile. the vegetarian cyclists flee.

Halloway is thrilled and excited. Ever since Stillman let him share some of the wild deer he had caught, skinned and barbecued on the 20th story of an abandoned hotel, Halloway’s lusts have been awoken (a scene, incidentally, which is strongly reminiscent of the famous opening scene if High Rise). Now Halloway revels in the noise of the city, the pollution caused by the cars. And in the shadows after the retreat of the cyclists are standing shy youths attracted by the lights.

Slowly Halloway’s city project attracts recruits. From nowhere appear dribs and drabs of young people bored of placid vegetarian life in the communes who are attracted to the bright lights, fast cars, licquor and women of the Big City, until the population of ‘the reclaimed zone’ is a heady two hunred1

Of course all this is wildly unrealistic. Ballard makes a few gestures towards plausibility, suggesting that they are able to raid the half empty petrol tanks of the city’s millions of abandoned cars. But wouldn’t people have driven round in them till the last drop was used up, you ask. And seeing they were all abandoned 25 years ago, wouldn’t the petrol all have evaporated?

But such thoughts are like pointing out the improbabilities in Shakespeare’s Tempest. This is a dream, a fantasia, which accounts for the sense of smoothness and inevitability.

Then, with the inevitability of a fairy tale, or a certain kind of fable, it all starts to go wrong. One of the young hoodlum tendency loses control of a car and smashes into a shop window, running over a girl. Everyone attends her funeral. but instead of chastening the mood, it inflames it. Very quickly Stillman lures young workers away from Old’s workshops and the supermarkets and creates a paramilitary order, dressed in black shirts, who parade with their guns, looted from the city’s gunshops, in the central plaza.

Halloway goes to see Buckmaster to try and recruit him to his side, to the forces of law and order. There is a visionary scene where he finds the apartment block where the old man lives festooned with the flowers that Miranda plants everywhere, and sees her up on a balcony dressed all in white and hallucinates that she is in a wedding dress and the old man will have them married. But then he realises the exotic plants all around him are deadly nightshade. Next morning Buckmaster and Miranda leave the city forever.

Heading back towards the reclaimed zone, Halloway discovers it exploding and melting down, all the generators cranked up to full are exploding the street lights and traffic lights and fridges and record players. Everything is erupting in cascades of flame and broken glass.

And everywhere are littered the pocket computers Olds had adapted to convey his messages and which now convey a demented sequence of birds and wishes of escape. Realising that Halloway never meant to keep his promise to teach him how to fly, and that Stillman is becoming a fascist, Olds has sabotaged the entire social experiment he was vital in creating.

Halloway jumps into a car and follows Stillman and his young thugs out to Olds’ base in the abandoned airport. There on the top of the ten-floor multi-story car park, they see Olds in antique flying mask making last minute adjustments to the glider Halloway flew into the city all those long months ago. He has installed a petrol-powered propeller engine to it and is preparing to take off.

Halloway follows, a neutral party, as Stillman and his thugs try to storm the car park, but Olds has barricaded the ramps upwards with a line of his beloved antique cars. Then, as Halloway watches, a tide of gasoline comes pouring down the concrete ramps and before Stillman and his thugs can move, Olds ignites it in an almighty WHOOMPF, the top of the car park goes up in flames as Halloway escapes down a stairwell.

From the ground he watches Olds propel the glider forward, over the edge of the car park, it swoops right down to the ground as if going to crash and then soars up up up into the sky, heading steadily westwards ‘across the continent’.

Halloway drives thoughtfully back into the centre of town. The last generators are sputtering to an end. The once-vibrant little quarter is derelict and burnt out. Halloway makes a decision. he will head west, He will follow Olds. He will track down the old man and his daughter. he will make amends and marry hr. he will find Olds. And Olds will teach him to fly.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds, an the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 by John Darwin (2007)

Empires exist to accumulate power on an extensive scale…
(After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 page 483)

Why did the nations of Western Europe rise through the 18th and 19th centuries to create empires which stretched around the world, how did they manage to subjugate ancient nations like China and Japan, to turn vast India into a colonial possession, to carve up Africa between them?

How did white European cultures come to dominate not only the territories and peoples who they colonised, but to create the modern mindset – a vast mental framework which encompasses capitalist economics, science and technology and engineering, which dominates the world right down to the present day?

Why did the maritime states of Europe (Britain, France, the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese) end up either settling from scratch the relatively empty places of the world (America, Australia), or bringing all the other cultures of the world (the Ottoman Empire, Hindu India, Confucian China and Shinto Japan) under their domination?

For at least two hundred years politicians, historians, economists and all kinds of academics and theoreticians have been writing books trying to explain ‘the rise of the West’.

Some attribute it to the superiority of the Protestant religion (some explicitly said it was God’s plan). Some that it was something to do with the highly fragmented nature of Europe, full of squabbling nations vying to outdo each other, and that this rivalry spilled out into unceasing competition for trade, at first across the Atlantic, then along new routes to India and the Far East, eventually encompassing the entire globe.

Some credit the Scientific Revolution, with its proliferation of new technologies from compasses to cannons, an unprecedented explosion of discoveries and inventions. Some credit the slave trade and the enormous profits made from working to death millions and millions of African slaves which fuelled the industrial revolution and paid for the armies which subjugated India.

Lenin thought it was the unique way European capitalism had first perfected techniques to exploit the proletariat in the home countries and then applied the same techniques to subjugate less advanced nations, and that the process would inevitably lead to a global capitalist war once the whole world was colonised.

So John Darwin’s book, which sets out to answer all these questions and many more, is hardly a pioneering work; it is following an extremely well-trodden path. BUT it does so in a way which feels wonderfully new, refreshing and exciting. This is a brilliant book. If you were only going to read one book about imperialism, this is probably The One.

For at least three reasons:

1. Darwin appears to have mastered the enormous revisionist literature generated over the past thirty years or more, which rubbishes any idea of innate European superiority, which looks for far more subtle and persuasive reasons – so that reading this book means you can feel yourself reaping the benefits of hundreds of other more detailed & specific studies. He is not himself oppressively politically correct, but he is on the right side of all the modern trends in historical thought (i.e. is aware of feminist, BAME and post-colonial studies).

2. Darwin pays a lot more attention than is usual to all the other cultures which co-existed alongside Europe for so long (Islam, the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire, the Safavid Empire, the Chinese Empire, Japan, all are treated in fascinating detail and given almost as much space as Europe, more, in the earlier chapters) so that reading this book you learn an immense amount about the history of these other cultures over the same period.

3. Above all, Darwin paints a far more believable and plausible picture than the traditional legend of one smooth, consistent and inevitable ‘Rise of the West’. On the contrary, in Darwin’s version:

the passage from Tamerlane’s times to our own has been far more contested, confused and chance-ridden than the legend suggests – an obvious enough point. But [this book places] Europe (and the West) in a much larger context: amid the empire-, state- and culture-building projects of other parts of Eurasia. Only thus, it is argued, can the course, nature, scale and limits of Europe’s expansion be properly grasped, and the jumbled origins of our contemporary world become a little clearer.

‘Jumbled origins’, my God yes. And what a jumble!

Why start with Tamerlane?

Tamerlane the Eurasian conqueror died in 1405. Darwin takes his death as marking the end of an epoch, an era inaugurated by the vast wave of conquest led across central Asia by Genghis Khan starting around 1200, an era in which one ruler could, potentially, aspire to rule the entire Eurasian landmass.

When Tamerlane was born the ‘known world’ still stretched from China in the East, across central Asia, through the Middle East, along the north African shore and including Europe. Domination of all of China, central Asia, northern India, the Middle East and Europe was, at least in theory, possible, had been achieved by Genghis Khan and his successors, and was the dream which had inspired Tamerlane.

Map of the Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan

But by the death of Tamerlane the political situation across Eurasia had changed. The growth in organisation, power and sophistication of the Ottoman Empire, the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria, the Muslim sultanate in north India and above all the resilience of the new Ming dynasty in China, meant this kind of ‘global’ domination was no longer possible. For centuries nomadic tribes had ravaged through Eurasia (before the Mongols it had been the Turks who emerged out of Asia to seize the Middle East and found the Ottoman Dynasty). Now that era was ending.

It was no longer possible to rule the sown from the steppe (p.5)

Moreover, within a few decades of Tamerlane’s demise, Portuguese mariners had begun to explore westwards, first on a small scale colonising the Azores and Canary Islands, but with the long-term result that the Eurasian landmass would never again constitute the ‘entire world’.

What was different about European empires?

Empires are the oldest and most widespread form of government. They are by far the commonest way that human societies have organised themselves: the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, the Greek and Roman Empires, the Aztec Empire, the Inca Empire, the Mali Empire, Great Zimbabwe, the Chinese empire, the Nguyễn empire in Vietnam, the Japanese Empire, the Ottoman empire, the Mughal empire, the Russian empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, to name just a few.

Given this elementary fact about history, why do the west European empires come in for such fierce criticism these days?

Because, Darwin explains, they were qualitatively different.

  1. Because they affected far more parts of the world across far more widespread areas than ever before, and so ‘the constituency of the aggrieved’ is simply larger – much larger – than ever before.
  2. Because they were much more systematic in their rapaciousness. The worst example was surely the Belgian Empire in the Congo, European imperialism stripped of all pretence and exposed as naked greed backed up by appalling brutality. But arguably all the European empires mulcted their colonies of raw materials, treasures and of people more efficiently (brutally) than any others in history.

The result is that it is going to take some time, maybe a lot of time, for the trauma of the impact of the European empires to die down and become what Darwin calls ‘the past’ i.e. the realm of shadowy past events which we don’t think of as affecting us any more.

The imperial legacy is going to affect lots of people, in lots of post-colonial nations, for a long time to come, and they are not going to let us in the old European colonial countries forget it.

Structure

After Tamerlane is divided up into nine chapters:

  1. Orientations
  2. Eurasia and the Age of Discovery
  3. The Early Modern Equilibrium (1750s – 1800)
  4. The Eurasian Revolution (1800 – 1830)
  5. The Race Against Time (1830 – 1880)
  6. The Limits of Empire (1880 – 1914)
  7. Towards The Crisis of The World (1914 – 42)
  8. Empire Denied (1945 – 2000)
  9. Tamerlane’s Shadow

A flood of insights

It sounds like reviewer hyperbole but there really is a burst of insights on every page of this book.

It’s awe-inspiring, dazzling, how Darwin can take the elements of tremendously well-known stories (Columbus and the discovery of America, or the Portuguese finding a sea route to India, the first trading stations on the coasts of India or the unequal treaties imposed on China, or the real consequences of the American Revolution) and present them from an entirely new perspective. Again and again on every page he unveils insight after insight. For example:

American Take the fact – which I knew but had never seen stated so baldly – that the American War of Independence wasn’t about ‘liberty’, it was about land. In the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756 – 63) the British government had banned the colonists from migrating across the Appalachians into the Mississippi valley (so as to protect the Native Americans and because policing this huge area would be ruinously expensive). The colonists simply wanted to overthrow these restrictions and, as soon as the War of Independence was over (i.e. after the British gave up struggling to retain the rebel colonies in 1783), the rebels set about opening the floodgates to colonising westward.

India Victorian apologists claimed the British were able to colonise huge India relatively easily because of the superiority of British organisation and energy compared with Oriental sloth and backwardness. In actual fact, Darwin explains it was in part the opposite: it was because the Indians had a relatively advanced agrarian economy, with good routes of communication, business hubs and merchants – an open and well-organised economy, which the British just barged their way into (p.264).

(This reminds me of the case made in The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson that Cortés was able to conquer the Aztec and Pissarro the Incas, not because the Indians were backward but precisely because they were the most advanced, centralised and well organised states in Central and South America. The Spanish just installed themselves at the top of a well-ordered and effective administrative system. Against genuinely backward people, like the tribes who lived in the arid Arizona desert or the swamps of Florida or hid in the impenetrable Amazon jungle, the Spanish were helpless, because there was no one emperor to take hostage, or huge administrative bureaucracy to take over – which explains why those areas remained uncolonised for centuries.)

Cultural conservatism Until about 1830 there was still a theoretical possibility that a resurgent Ottoman or Persian empire, China or Japan, might have reorganised and repelled European colonisers. But a decisive factor which in the end prevented them was the intrinsic conservatism of these cultures. For example, both Chinese and Muslim culture venerated wisdom set down by a wise man (Mohammed, Confucius) at least a millennium earlier, and teachers, professors, civil servants were promoted insofar as they endorsed and parroted these conservative values. At key moments, when they could have adopted more forward-looking ideologies of change, all the other Eurasian cultures plumped for conservatism and sticking to the Old.

Thus, even as it dawned on both China and Japan that they needed to react to the encroachments of the Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century, both countries did so by undertaking not innovations but what they called restorations – the T’ung-chih (‘Union for Order’) restoration in China and the Meiji (‘Enlightened rule’) restoration in Japan (p.270). (Darwin’s description of the background and enactment of both these restorations is riveting.)

The Western concept of Time Darwin has a fascinating passage about how the Europeans developed a completely new theory of Time (p.208). It was the exploration of America which did this (p.209) because here Europeans encountered, traded and warred with Stone Age people who used bows and arrows and (to start with) had no horses or wheeled vehicles and had never developed anything like a technology. This led European intellectuals to reflect that maybe these people came from an earlier phase of historical development, to develop the new notion that maybe societies evolve and develop and change.

European thinkers quickly invented numerous ‘systems’ suggesting the various ‘stages of development’ which societies progressed through, from the X Age to the Y Age and then on to the Z Age – but they all agreed that the native Americans (and even more so, the Australian aborigines when they were discovered in the 1760s) represented the very earliest stages of society, and that, by contrast, Western society had evolved through all the intervening stages to reach its present state of highly evolved ‘perfection’.

Once you have created mental models like this, it is easy to categorise all the other cultures you encounter (Ottomans, Hindus, China, Japan, Siam, Annamite etc) as somewhere lower or backward on these paths or stages of development.

And being at the top of the tree, why, naturally that gave white Europeans the right to intervene, invade, conquer and administer all the other people of the world in order to ‘raise’ them to the same wonderful level of civilisation as themselves.

18th and 19th I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the way that, if you read accounts of the European empires, there is this huge difference between the rather amateurish 18th century and the fiercely efficient 19th century. Darwin explains why: in the eighteenth century there were still multiple European players in the imperial game: France was the strongest power on the continent, but she was balanced out by Prussia, Austria and also Spain and Portugal and the Dutch. France’s position as top dog in Europe was admittedly damaged by the Seven Years War but it wasn’t this, it was the Napoleonic Wars which in the end abolished the 18th century balance of power in Europe. Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the new top dog, with a navy which could beat all-comers, which had hammered the French at the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar, and which now ruled the waves.

The nineteenth century feels different because Britain’s world-encompassing dominance was different in kind from any empire which ever preceded it.

Africa If I have one quibble it’s that I’d like to have learned more about Africa. I take the point that his book is focused on Eurasia and the Eurasian empires (and I did learn a huge amount about Persia, the Moghul empire, China and Japan) and that all sub-Saharan Africa was cut off from Eurasia by the Sahara, but still… it feels like an omission.

And a woke reader might well object to the relative rareness of Darwin’s references to the African slave trade. He refers to it a few times, but his interest is not there; it’s in identifying exactly where Europe was like or unlike the rival empires of Eurasia, in culture and science and social organisation and economics. That’s his focus.

Russia If Africa is disappointingly absent, an unexpected emphasis is placed in each chapter on the imperial growth of Russia. I knew next to nothing about this. A quick surf on Amazon suggests that almost all the books you can get about the Russian ’empire’ are about the fall of the Romanovs and the Bolshevik Revolution and then Lenin or Stalin’s creation of a Bolshevik empire which expanded into Eastern Europe after the war. That’s to say it’s almost all about twentieth century Russia (with the exception of a crop of ad hoc biographies of Peter the Great or Catherine the Great).

So it was thrilling to read Darwin give what amounts to a sustained account and explanation of the growth of the Kingdom of Muscovy from the 1400s onwards, describing how it expanded west (against Poland, the Baltic states, Sweden), south towards the Black Sea, south-west into the Balkans – but most of all how Russian power was steadily expanded East across the vast inhospitable tundra of Siberia until Russian power reached the Pacific.

It is odd, isn’t it, bizarre, uncanny, that a nation that likes to think of itself as ‘European’ has a huge coastline on the Pacific Ocean and to this day squabbles about the ownership of small islands with Japan!

The process of Russian expansion involved just as much conquering of the ‘primitive’ tribal peoples who hunted and trapped in the huge landmass of Siberia as the conquest of, say, Canada or America, but you never read about it, do you? Can you name any of the many native tribes the Russians fought and conquered? No. Are there any books about the Settling of the East as there are thousands and thousands about the conquest of the American West? Nope. It is a historical black hole.

But Darwin’s account of the growth of the Russian Empire is not only interesting as filling in what – for me at any rate – is a big hole in my knowledge. It is also fascinating because of the role Russian expansion played again and again in the game of Eurasian Risk which his book describes. At key moments Russian pressure from the North distracted the attention of the Ottoman Empire from making more offensive thrusts into Europe (the Ottomans famously encroached right up to the walls of Vienna in 1526 and then again in 1683).

When the Russians finally achieved one of their territorial goals and seized the Crimea in 1783, as a result of the Russo-Turkish War, it had the effect, Darwin explains, of cracking the Ottoman Empire open ‘like an oyster’. For centuries the Black Sea had been an Ottoman lake and a cheaply defensible frontier. Now, at a stroke, it became a massive vulnerability which needed costly defence (p.175).

And suddenly, seeing it all from the Russian perspective, this sheds new light on the timeworn story of the decline of the Ottoman Empire which I only know about from the later 19th century and from the British perspective. For Darwin the role of Russian expansionism was vital not only in itself, but for the hemming in and attritional impact it had on the other Eurasian empires – undermining the Ottomans, making the Chinese paranoid because Russian expansion around its northern borders added to China’s sense of being encircled and endangered, a sense that contributed even more to its risk-averse policy of doubling down on its traditional cultural and political and economic traditions, and refusing to see anything of merit in the Westerners’ technology or crude diplomacy. A policy which eventually led to the Chinese empire’s complete collapse in 1911.

And of course the Russians actually went to war with imperial Japan in 1905.

Numbered lists

Darwin likes making numbered lists. There’s one on almost every page. They rarely go higher than three. Here are some examples to give a flavour of his careful, forensic and yet thrillingly insightful way of explaining things.

The 18th century geopolitical equilibrium The geopolitical revolution which ended the long equilibrium of the 18th century had three major effects:

  1. The North American interior and the new lands in the Pacific would soon become huge extensions of European territory, the ‘new Europes’.
  2. As a result of the Napoleonic war, the mercantile ‘zoning’ system which had reflected the delicate balance of power among European powers was swept away and replaced with almost complete control of the world’s oceans by the British Navy.
  3. Darwin gives a detailed description of why Mughal control of North India was disrupted by invasions by conquerors from the north, first Iran then Afghanistan, who weakened central Indian power at just the moment the British started expanding from their base in Bengal. Complex geopolitical interactions.

The so-called stagnation of the other Eurasian powers can be characterised by:

  1. In both China and the Islamic world classical, literary cultures dominated the intellectual and administrative elites – the test of intellectual acumen was fitting all new observations into the existing mindset, prizes went to those who could do so with the least disruption possible.
  2. Cultural and intellectual authority was vested in scribal elites backed up by political power, both valuing stasis.
  3. Both China and the Islamic world were profoundly indifferent and incurious about the outside world.

The knowledge revolution Compare and contrast the East’s incuriosity with the ‘West’, which underwent a cognitive and scientific revolution in which merit went to the most disruptive inventors of new theories and technologies, and where Darwin describes an almost obsessive fascination with maps. This was supercharged by Captain Cook’s three huge expeditions around the Pacific, resulting in books and maps which were widely bought and discussed, and which formed the basis of the trade routes which followed in his wake, and then the transportation of large numbers of convicts to populate Australia’s big empty spaces (about 164,000 convicts were transported to the Australian colonies between 1788 and 1868).

Traumatic impact of the Napoleonic Wars I hadn’t quite realised that the Napoleonic Wars had such a traumatising effect on the governments of the main European powers who emerged in its aftermath: Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia. Very broadly speaking there was peace between the European powers between the 1830s and 1880s. Of course there was the Crimean War (Britain, France and Turkey containing Russia’s imperial expansion), war between Austria and Prussia (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War. But all these were contained by the system, were mostly of short duration and never threatened to unravel into the kind of general conflict which ravaged Europe under Napoleon.

Thus, from the imperial point of view, the long peace had four results:

  1. The Royal Navy’s policing of all trade routes across the Atlantic and between Europe and Asia kept trade routes open throughout the era and kept costs down for everyone.
  2. The balance of power which the European powers maintained among themselves discouraged intervention in either North or South America and allowed America to develop economically as if it had no enemies – a rare occurrence for any nation in history.
  3. The post-Napoleonic balance of power in Europe encouraged everyone to tread carefully in their imperial rivalries.
  4. Geo-political stability in Europe allowed the growth across the continent of something like a European ideology. This was ‘liberalism’ – a nexus of beliefs involving the need for old-style autocratic power to be tempered by the advice of representatives of the new middle class, and the importance of that middle class in the new technologies and economics unleashed by the industrial revolution and in founding and administering the growing colonies abroad.

Emigration Emigration from Europe to the New World was a trickle in the 1830s but had become a flood by the 1850s. Between 1850 and 1880 over eight million people left Europe, mostly for America.

  1. This mass emigration relieved the Old World of its rural overcrowding and transferred people to an environment where they could be much more productive.
  2. Many of the emigrants were in fact skilled artisans. Moving to an exceptionally benign environment, a vast empty continent rich in resources, turbo-charged the American economy with the result that by the 1880s it was the largest in the world.

Fast His chapter The Race Against Time brings out a whole area, an entire concept, I’ve never come across before, which is that part of the reason European colonisation was successful was it was so fast. Not just that Western advances in military technology – the lightning advances in ships and artillery and guns – ran far ahead of anything the other empires could come up with – but that the entire package of international finance, trade routes, complex webs sending raw materials back home and re-exporting manufactured goods, the sudden flinging of railways all across the world’s landmasses, the erection of telegraphs to flash knowledge of markets, prices of goods, or political turmoil back from colonies to the European centre – all of this happened too quickly for the rival empires (Ottoman, Japan, China etc) to stand any chance of catching up.

Gold rushes This sense of leaping, hurtling speed was turbo-charged by literal gold rushes, whether in the American West in the 1840s or in South Africa where it was first gold then diamonds. Suddenly tens of thousands of white men turned up, quickly followed by townships full of traders and artisans, then the railway, the telegraph, the sheriffs with their guns – all far faster than any native American or South African cultures could hope to match or even understand.

Shallow And this leads onto another massive idea which reverberates through the rest of the book and which really changed my understanding. This is that, as the spread of empire became faster and faster, reaching a kind of hysterical speed in the so-called Scramble For Africa in the 1880s (the phrase was, apparently, coined by the London Times in 1884) it meant that there was something increasingly shallow about its rule, especially in Africa.

The Scramble for Africa

Darwin says that most radical woke historians take the quick division of Africa in the 1880s and 1890s as a kind of epitome of European imperialism, but that it was in fact the opposite, and extremely unrepresentative of the development of the European imperialisms.

The Scramble happened very quickly whereas – markedly

unlike the piecemeal conquest of Central, Southern of North America, or India, which took centuries.

The Scramble took place with almost no conflict between the European powers – in fact they agreed to partitions and drew up lines in a very equable way at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. Other colonies (from the Incas to India) were colonised because there were organised civilisations which could be co-opted, whereas a distinctive feature about Africa (‘historians broadly agree about one vital fact’ p.314) was that people were in short supply. Africa was undermanned or underpeopled. There were few organised states or kingdoms because there simply wasn’t the density of population which lends itself to trading routes, settled farmers and merchants – all the groups who can be taxed to create a king and aristocracy.

Africans hadn’t progressed to centralised states as humans had in Eurasia or central America because there weren’t enough of them. Hence the poverty and the lack of resistance which most of the conquerors encountered in most of Africa.

In fact the result of all this was that most of the European governments weren’t that keen on colonising Africa. It was going to cost a lot of money and there weren’t the obvious revenue streams that they had found in a well-established economy like India.

What drove the Scramble for Africa more than anything else was adventurers on the ground – dreamers and fantasists and ambitious army officers and business men and empire builders who kept on taking unilateral action which then pitched the home government into a quandary – deny their adventurers and pass up the opportunity to win territory to a rival, or reluctantly support them and get enmeshed in all kinds of messy responsibilities.

For example, in the mid-1880s a huge swathe of West Africa between the desert and the forest was seized by a buccaneering group of French marine officers under Commandant Louis Archinard, and their black rank and file. In a few years these adventurers brought some two million square miles into France’s empire. The government back in Paris felt compelled to back them up which meant sending out more troops, police and so on, which would cost money.

Meanwhile, modern communications had been invented, the era of mass media had arrived, and the adventuring soldiers and privateers had friends and boosters in the popular press who could be counted on to write leading articles about ‘the white man’s burden’ and the torch of civilisation and ask: ‘Isn’t the government going to defend our brave boys?’, until reluctant democratic governments were forced to cough up support. Modern-day liberals often forget that imperialism was wildly popular. It often wasn’t imperialist or rapacious governments or the ruling class which prompted conquest, but popular sentiment, jingoism, which couldn’t be ignored in modern democracies.

Darwin on every page, describes and explains the deep economic, trade and financial structures which the West put in place during the nineteenth century and which eventually underpinned an unstoppable steamroller of annexation, protectorates, short colonial wars and long-term occupation.

The Congress of Berlin

The Congress of Berlin helped to formalise the carving up of Africa, and so it has come to be thought of as evil and iniquitous, particularly by BAME and woke historians. But once again Darwin makes you stop and think when he compares the success of the congress at reaching peaceful agreements between the squabbling European powers – and what happened in 1914 over a flare-up in the Balkans.

If only Bismarck had been around in 1914 to suggest that instead of rapidly mobilising to confront each other, the powers of Europe had once again been invited for tea and cake at the Reichstag to discuss their differences like gentlemen and come to an equable agreement.

Seen from this perspective, the Berlin Congress is not so much an evil colonialist conspiracy, but an extremely successful event which avoided any wars between the European powers for nearly thirty years. Africa was going to be colonised anyway because human events have a logic of their own: the success was in doing so without sparking a European conflagration.

The Scramble for China The Scramble for China is not as well known as its African counterpart,  the competition to gain ‘treaty ports’ on the Chinese coast, impose unfair trading terms on the Chinese and so on.

As usual, though, Darwin comes at it from a much wider angle and makes one massive point I hadn’t registered before – which is that Russia very much wanted to seize the northern part of China to add to its far eastern domains; Russia really wanted to carve China up, but Britain didn’t. And if Britain, the greatest trading, economic and naval power in the world, wasn’t onside, then it wouldn’t happen. There wasn’t a genuine Scramble for China because Britain didn’t want one.

Why not? Darwin quotes a Foreign Office official simply saying, ‘We don’t want another India.’ One enormous third world country to try and administer with its hundreds of ethnic groups and parties growing more restive by the year, was quite enough.

Also, by the turn of the century, the Brits had become paranoid about Russia’s intentions to conquer Afghanistan and march into North India. If they partitioned China with Russia, that would mean policing an even longer frontier even further way against an aggressive imperialist power ready to pounce the moment our guard was down.

Summary

This is an absolutely brilliant book. I don’t think I’ve ever come across so many dazzling insights and revelations and entirely new ways of thinking about a time-worn subject in one volume.

This is the book to give anyone who’s interested not just in ‘the rise of the West’ but how the whole concept of ‘the West’ emerged, for a fascinating description not just of the European empires but of all the empires across Eurasia – Ottoman, Persian, Moghul, Chinese and Japanese – and how history – at this level – consists of the endless juggling for power of these enduring power blocs, the endless and endlessly

complex history of empire-, state- and culture-building. (p.490)

And of course it all leads up to where we are today: a resurgent Russia flexing its muscles in Ukraine and Crimea; China wielding its vast economic power and brutally oppressing its colonial subjects in Tibet and Xinkiang, while buying land, resources and influence in Africa. And both Russia and China using social media and the internet in ways we don’t yet fully understand in order to undermine the West.

And Turkey, keen as its rulers of all colours have been since the Ottoman days, to keep the Kurds down. And Iran, as its rulers have done for a thousand years, continually seeking new ways to extend its influence around the Gulf, across Syria and to the Mediterranean, in eternal rivalry with the Arab world which, in our time, means Saudi Arabia, against whom Iran is fighting a proxy war in the Yemen.

Darwin’s books really drives home the way the faces and the ideologies may change, but the fundamental geopolitical realities endure, and with them the crudeness and brutality of the tools each empire employs.

If you let ‘morality’, especially modern woke morality, interfere with your analysis of this level of geopolitics, you will understand nothing. At this level it always has and always will be about power and influence, dominating trade and ensuring raw resources, and behind it all the never-ending quest for ‘security’.

At this level, it isn’t about following narrow, English notions of morality. Getting hung up on that only gets in the way of grasping the utterly amoral forces at play everywhere in the world today, just as they’ve always been.

Darwin stands up for intelligence and insight, for careful analysis and, above all, for a realistic grasp of human nature and human society – deeply, profoundly flawed and sometimes pitiful and wretched though both routinely are. He takes an adult view. It is absolutely thrilling and a privilege to be at his side as he explains and analysis this enormous history, with such confidence, and with so many brilliant ideas and insights.


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Exhibitions

History

Imperial fiction

Sir Stamford Raffles: collecting in Southeast Asia 1811-1824 @ the British Museum

As it is in just one room upstairs at the back of the British Museum, and is FREE, I thought this would be a relatively light and small exhibition to enjoy, but I was wrong. It’s a surprisingly packed exhibition which gives a panoramic view of Indonesian, and particularly Javanese, culture – at least through the eyes of one of its earliest European collectors.

Puppet of the comic character Sabda Palon, one of Damarwulan’s servants (Central Java, probably Surakarta, 1700s) © Trustees of the British Museum

Stamford Raffles, a potted biography

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781 – 1826) started working for the East India Company when he was 14, and spent most of his life as an East India Company official in Southeast Asia. In 1811 he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Java when the British seized it from the Dutch, but in 1815, when we gave it back to the Dutch at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he was forced to stand down and returned to England.

Raffles arrived back in Britain with a substantial collection, almost 450 puppets, over 700 coins, more than 350 drawings, over 130 masks, more than 120 small metal sculptures and five small stone sculptures. His collection quickly became the talk of academic London and Raffles settled down to write what became a massive two-volume History of Java. On its publication in 1817 he dedicated it to the Prince Regent and was rewarded with a knighthood. That’s how to make friends and influence people!

Portrait of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles by James Thompson (1824)

In 1817 Raffles went back out East when he was chosen to be Lieutenant-Governor of Bengkulu (Bencoolen), in southwest Sumatra, where he served until 1824. It was during this period that he took advantage of a succession dispute between local rulers to seize the small village of Singapore, as the perfect location for a trading post for the British East India Company half way between India and China.

This ‘foundation’ of Singapore took place in 1819, and this explains why this exhibition has been mounted – indirectly to mark the bicentennary of what went on to become one of the most vibrant commercial cities in the world.

Post-imperial reappraisal

But, as you might expect of any leading figure in the British Empire, Raffles is nowadays frowned on by academics, by historians and curators (not to mention the inhabitants of Java and Indonesia, or those who are interested enough in their history to have heard of him).

Raffles has become, in other words, a controversial figure, one of thousands of similar controversial imperial figures, once revered in their European homelands for deeds of derring-do and seizing territory from foreigners – now undergoing reappraisal from academics and curators who are, because of their positions, more than usually aware of the need for respect and diversity in our modern multicultural societies.

A demon, Buta Kimul, Cirebon, Western Java, late 1700s-early 1800s

The Raffles collection

Anyway, the exhibition explains that Raffles was an avid collector of objects from the region, particularly from Java but also from China, Sumatra (now part of Indonesia), India, Burma (Myanmar) and Siam (Thailand). He had the true collector mentality, he was fascinated with bargaining and bartering for obscure objects, and then categorising them and arranging them.

Eventually he accumulated some 2,000 objects which provide us with a vital record of the art and court cultures of Java from approximately the 7th century to the early 19th century.

This exhibition presents the cream of Raffles’s personal collection and adds some loan objects from the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, seen here in the UK for the first time. So it’s a collaborative exhibition and will transfer to the Singapore museum next year.

The exhibition is divided up into quite a few sub-sections, each devoted to a specific type of artefact. These include:

  • Hindu and antiquities
  • bronze Buddhas and bodhisattvas
  • protective amulets
  • theatrical puppets
  • theatrical masks
  • musical instruments
  • stone sculptures
  • metal sculptures

In all there are 130 objects, many of them very beautiful. I think the curator was wise to begin with a dramatic display of theatrical face masks and stick puppets from across Java, since these are by far the most colourful and attractive objects.

Javanese theatre masks

We learn that Java and the nearby islands were home to a combination of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, until Islam arrived around 1400. This explains the number of Hindu and Buddhist statues on display.

It also explains another particular thread of Raffles’s collection, which was the organised visits he paid to a series of famous Hindu and Buddhist archaeological sites. Each of these is given its own section in the display cabinets, with a label explaining its location (and a map), a photo of the modern site, and then examples of drawings made at the locations. Often these drawings are not by him; he bought them off Dutch antiquarians who had visited and sketched the various sites.

To be honest, I found these worthy but a bit boring – one for the specialist in the religious architecture of medieval Java, maybe.

Pair of drawings showing a temple covered in foliage (right), and as imagined in a complete state (left), with commentary by G. P. Baker. H. C. Cornelius (1774–c.1833), around 1807

The curator makes the interesting point that what’s interesting about many of these drawings is the way they have been ‘beautified’ i.e. touched up to appeal to the late-eighteenth century taste for ruins, especially ruined temples, churches etc. Most of the buildings remain today and don’t look remotely as weathered and picturesque as these stylish drawings.

Raffles’ colonial motivation

Raffles had an ulterior motive for making such an extensive collection. The British had seized Java from the Dutch when the latter allied with Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars. However, we gave it back to the Dutch with the peace of 1815, but Raffles thought this was a mistake. He thought Indonesia ought to be a British colony. According to the curator this was based not only on straightforward mercantile considerations, but also on a particular view of history.

Raffles subscribed to one of the many theories of history floating around during the Enlightenment, in his case the view that civilisations rise and fall in a continual ebbing and flowing.

He thought the impressive ruins which he visited, and the highly crafted artifacts which he bought, showed that Java had once had a great civilisation… and could do so once again, if carefully tutored and supported by a benevolent patron, namely the British.

Therefore Raffles made his extensive collection, at least in part, to persuade his British masters that the island was worth taking over as a British protectorate. Same goes for the enormous two-volume History of Java which contains a monumental survey and history of the island state. In it Raffles provides a comprehensive ethnographic description of the island’s society, describing its economy, trade, languages and dialects, and religious and social customs, together with a detailed history of the island, including a discussion of the introduction of Islam.

He was a true collector and early ethnographer, but also a man of his time and a thorough colonialist. This exhibition is a truly fascinating insight, less into the man, than into the history of the place whose artifacts and objects he collected so assiduously.

Finally, from the whole collection of masks and puppets and statues and swords and ceramics and drawings, I thought by far the most winning object was one of the ‘additional’ objects on loan to the exhibition and not actually collected by Raffles himself, but from a much later generation – this wonderfully intricate model ship made entirely out of cloves!

Model boat from the Maluku islands, made of cloves and fibre, late 19th century

Curator

Alexandra Green


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Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies @ the British Museum

At the back of the British Museum and up three flights of stairs you get to rooms 90, 90a, 91 and 91a, calm quiet rooms which specialise in temporary exhibitions drawn from the museum’s vast collections of prints and drawings. The rotating exhibitions in these rooms are always FREE.

At the moment rooms 90 and 90a are hosting a fabulous exhibition of prints and drawings by the great Käthe Kollwitz, and a wide-ranging selection of drawing by contemporary artists from the 1970s to the present.

Beyond them lie rooms 91 and 91a which are currently hosting a fascinating and surprisingly dense exhibition about the collection made by the imperialist Stamford Raffles of artifacts from Java and Malaysia in the early nineteenth century.

And beyond these is a room so small it doesn’t appear to have a number. And it is in this darkened, hushed and reverend room that the museum is displaying the extremely old and fragile masterpiece of early Chinese figure painting known as Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies.

The instructress writing the scroll

Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies

The Admonitions’ proper title is Nüshi zhen 女史箴 (Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies).

It is a handscroll painting three and a half metres long and about a foot tall. The Admonitions is one of the earliest Chinese paintings on silk in existence and one of the earliest and most important Chinese paintings to survive anywhere.

The poetic text was composed by writer, poet and politician, Zhang Hua (c. AD 232 – 300) and should be read from right to left.

The Admonitions depicts nine scenes (there were originally 12) each of which shows a situation encountered at the imperial court or from legend, giving palace ladies advice on how to behave according to Confucian principles or examples of ladylike heroism or devotion.

Palace ladies beautifying themselves

The first three scenes were lost before the scroll came to the museum. Scenes four to 12 depict:

  1. Lady Feng and the bear – Lady Feng was the consort of Emperor Yuan of Han, who ruled 48 to 33 BC and she is shown with two palace guards placing themselves in front of the emperor to protect him from a bear
  2. Lady Ban refuses to ride – Lady Ban was the consort of Emperor Cheng of Han, who ruled 33 to 7 BC, and she refused to ride in the imperial palanquin with her husband, saying emperors should only ride with their ministers
  3. The mountain and the archer – in the outside scene an archer takes aim at a faraway mountain teeming with life and the text draws the moral about the impermanence of fame and glory
  4. Attending to appearance – palace ladies attend to their appearance but the text warns that tending to the inner self is just as important
  5. The bedchamber scene – when your words are evil even your bedfellow will mistrust you
  6. The family scene – the emperor is show with his wives and children
  7. The rejection scene – the emperor turns away from a consort; she had become accustomed to thinking herself the most important but ends up being spurned
  8. A lady reflects on her conduct – and the Confucian virtues of humanity, righteousness, loyalty and respect for parents, husband and emperor
  9. The court instructress writes down instructions on how to behave

Lady Feng along with two guards defending the Emperor Yuan of Han from a (rather small and unthreatening) bear

Painted in the fifth to the seventh century AD, the Admonitions was once part of the collection of the Qianlong emperor who ruled from 1736 to 1795. The emperor himself was one among several hands who added further inscriptions to the scroll.

It was under him that the scroll was remounted, and a new wrapper was added. This was made from a piece of 18th century brocade, woven in a geometric and floral pattern. In fact the same piece of fabric was used to wrap other important handscroll paintings in the emperor’s collection.

For conservation reasons the scroll can only be displayed for six weeks a year, which explains the seriously darkened room it is being shown in, and means this is a rare opportunity to see it. To be honest I found it more a thing of interest than of beauty. The paintings are distinctively Chinese but not necessarily that impressive.

Other exhibits

The historic scroll is the centrepiece of this one-room display, but around the walls are hung some additional works to give it context. These include:

  • Zou Yigui’s (1686 – 1766) Pine, Bamboo, Rock and Spring which was once mounted with the Admonitions Scroll
  • Wen Zhengming’s (1470–1559) Wintry Trees
  • a 14th century painting Reading in the Reflection of the Snow, signed Sheng Mou (active 1310 – 1360) which has recently been restored and remounted by the museum

In their way I preferred these paintings to the scroll itself. Or to put it another way, they give very different experiences.

Quite obviously the scroll is a didactic work, with designs on its readers to improve their thinking and behaviour, whereas these later paintings are much lighter in touch and feel.

Reading in the Reflection of the Snow in particular, depicts that classic Chinese painted landscape, tall tiered mountains in the background, beautifully rendered trees in the foreground. It’s only when you bend down to look closer that you can make out the figure of a bearded man walking over a bamboo bridge at the bottom, and slowly realise that he is heading towards a house hidden among the trees. In the house you can just about make out the protagonist of the painting, the scholar Su Kang, of the Jin period (265-420), who was so poor that, the story goes, he couldn’t afford a candle and so, at night time, could only read when the moonlight was reflected in the winter snow – hence the title.

Reading in the Reflection of the Snow by Sheng Mou (14th century)

It’s a relatively small room, but full of beautiful visual and intellectual experiences 🙂


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Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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