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

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.

His previous two 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 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.

He knew he was dying. Maybe he ran out of time to revise and expand the familiar stories…

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 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 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 has 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 just full of dead bodies, the peasants who died overnight in Shanghai, poor beggars who died in doorways, the river full of corpses floating gently to the sea because they couldn’t afford decent burials. And over and above this the public stranglings as a form of justice. And then when the Japanese took over in 1937, 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 any reader knows – 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 money and gadgets and big shiny cars and exciting music and The Future, a feeling which lasted through the 1960s and then somehow went astray during the 1970s.

The 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 it quite clearly makes the prison accounts of both books massively more intense. Whereas his real life wasn’t, 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 camp.

Something confirmed by…

He says in many ways his years in the Lunghua internment camp were the happiest 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. (dream of empire)

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 in histories, but more impactful to read about its impact from 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 was as a tourist trap. In this book we get a bit more detail: he 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 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. He 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 Bacon is central though 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 talking 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 emphasises all Amis’s good qualities before he became disillusioned with England, and then life, and turned into a professional curmudgeon
  • Michael Moorcock who 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 several 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 all 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 explain why his writings evince just such a deeply traumatised reaction.

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 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 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 many of his 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 the 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.

Concs

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

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The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard (1991)

The Kindness of Women was marketed as the ‘sequel’ to Ballard’s bestselling autobiographical memoir, Empire of the Sun, his long and gruelling account of the harrowing years he spent in a Japanese internment camp, having been captured and separated from his parents in war-torn Shanghai, but a careful reading suggests it is anything but an ‘autobiography’ and in fact much more like an extremely carefully composed novel which simply incorporates some themes from his life.

Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun had a tremendous unity of subject, time and location – starting in Shanghai just at the outbreak of hostilities with Japan, devoting most of its text to the harrowing experiences and degradations of the prison camp, and ending with a section about the strangeness of the war’s abrupt end – after the two atom bombs were dropped on Japan – and the dreamlike unreality of returning to his pukka, middle-class home at their comfortable home in Shanghai’s International Settlement.

It ends with Jim and his mother leaving Shanghai on a boat with other British mothers and children, bound for an England he had never seen, and so covers his life from just the ages of 11 to 15.

One of the many striking things about Empire of the Sun for seasoned Ballard fans was that… it wasn’t science fiction. It felt like a complete break with the past, with his previous dozen or so novels and scores of short stories, in being based on actual, sensible, real world events.

And yet, in another way, it was of a piece with his previous work in that it gave away or revealed the sources of, his entire worldview.

In the first part of the book the narrator, young Jim, describes the exotic phantasmagoria which was 1940s Shanghai, with its foreign people, food, smells, behaviour and casual brutality (public stranglings) in which he is a permanent outsider, where he is the spectator at wonderful and strange scenes – just as the protagonists of so many of his stories are.

And then, of course, the main part of the text, the description of life in the internment camp, is a prolonged portrait of nominally polite well-educated chaps and chapesses going to pieces, reverting to utter torpor or feral behaviour, while young Jim is permanently starved, covered in sores, feverish and over-excited

That more or less describes the behaviour of the protagonists of the key, hard-core Ballard stories and novels, from The Drowned World to High Rise, especially in the novels which almost all describe the same narrative trajectory – the decline and fall of an individual, or a small group of people, into malnutrition and madness.

In its final scenes Empire of the Sun reaches a hallucinatory intensity as Jim accompanies the other dying internees on a long death march across the Chinese countryside towards another internment camp up country, in which scores of exhausted, ill and dying Brits fall away at each rest stop.

Eventually they arrive at the bizarre setting of an abandoned Olympic sports stadium which has been packed with loot from Shanghai by the conquering Japanese and it is here, more dead than alive, that Jim sees a strange light cover the sky which, he later learns, was the atom bomb exploding over Nagasaki which brought the war in the Pacific to an end, and saved the lives of the remaining internees.

So then, it is a very focused narrative, written with delirious intensity.

The Kindness of Women

The Kindness of Women has many of the same qualities of its predecessor, but is much more diffuse. Basically it’s much broader and wider, covering the whole of the rest of Jim’s life, starting a little before the events described in Empire of the Sun (in starts in 1937, the year the Japanese first attacked China, as opposed to Empire which starts in 1941) and then proceeds up until more or less the time of its writing, in the late 1980s.

No autobiographer can simply describe everything they’ve said and seen and done. Instead you have to choose what to describe, and The Kindness of Women takes this very much to heart. It is very episodic. Each of the seventeen chapters zeroes in on a particular period or moment, on key incidents in Ballard’s life, and gives us a good 15- or 20-page tour of it, before moving briskly on to the next key moment or period.

Thus it has far less unity of time and place, and is therefore less focused and intense than Empire of the Sun. That book was seen entirely from young Jim’s point of view, and he was weak and malnourished even before he entered the camp thanks to spending several months on the run – so it is characterised by a) being seen just from Jim’s point of view and b) Jim being almost continuously feverish and hallucinatory.

By contrast, in most of The Kindness of Women a) the narrator is not just about to faint from exhaustion and malnutrition, and b) it features other people, normal people, people who weren’t locked up during the war, who aren’t suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and so who ground the story, contextualise and normalise it, as we follow Jim becoming a medical student, learning to fly in Canada, getting married, having children, going on holidays to Spain, and so on.

That said, the trauma of those years, and how the narrator copes with it, remains a central theme, in fact, as the narrative unfolds, you it is increasingly drummed home that the narrator has never really been able to get away from his early trauma. In this respect, as several others, it’s a less melodramatic but more moving narrative than Empire.

It is also episodic in the sense that the chapters really feel like episodes. Each one has the depth and artistic arrangement of short story. Each chapter or section features a central theme, with several sub-themes arranged around it to counterpoint each other, like a piece of classical music.

The same goes for the recurring characters. When we first meet his boyhood friend in Shanghai, David Hunter or the teenage girl, Peggy, who looks after him in the internment camp – or a little later, at Cambridge, Dr Sutherland and his sixth form assistant Miriam – little do we suspect that these characters will recur throughout the rest of the book, popping up at key moments and coming to assume larger-than-life roles, becoming almost allegorical figures which represent certain types of human experience and behaviour.

The more you read on, the more carefully and artfully contrived you realise the book is, a selection of representative scenes, each composed and arranged very carefully, featuring representative types, so that it becomes not just the retelling of a life, but something much more elaborately wrought: something like the explanation or rationalisation or justification of Ballard’s complex and bizarre worldview.

Not only do key events explain his attitudes and beliefs, but they also justify his aesthetic strategies towards them. I realised this in the chapter about car crashes which is centred on the exhibition of crashed cars Ballard put on in 1969, when I noticed that the vocabulary and phrasing of the chapter was suddenly echoing the phrases he used with such intensity in the novel Crash.

So you not only pass through episodes in his life which are relevant to the fiction, it’s as if elements of his prose style change and alter to incorporate the phraseology of the stories and especially novels which he wrote during that period. If the Crash chapters reads like an excerpt from Crash, with all its references to raked dashboards and jutting binnacles, so the chapter in which he takes LSD reads like the novel The Unlimited Dream Company in its images of light, super-colour, and so on.

I’m suggesting that the book not only takes you through the episodes which inspired many of his stories, it also (subtly, not blatantly) takes you through the many styles he has used.

Maybe the biggest surprise about the book is that it contains next to nothing about how he wrote his books, where the ideas came from, about his struggles as an unpublished author, the first short stories, the commission for the first novel, pride at being published, the critics, his involvement in what was quickly called the New Science Fiction, his manifesto about exploring Inner Space and so on.

There is nothing about any of that, or the craft of writing, or how many hours a day he puts in, or meetings with other writers, or writer or artist friends, his ideas about what science fiction is, or fiction in general, or art – nothing.

Writing that, I suddenly realise how narrow the book is, narrow and very focused. It only really features a handful of other characters – the ones mentioned above – and insofar as they keep bumping into each other at various stages of their lives, I realise that are, in a sense, walking embodiments of how to cope with trauma and troubled childhoods.

It’s as if Ballard is arranging and positioning the same characters into different painterly compositions, or posing the same half dozen people for the same sort of group photo which they take every couple of years over a forty year period.

By the end I wondered whether anything in this book actually happened, and whether any of these handily emblematic ‘characters’ ever existed.

The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems that The Kindness of Women is much, much more like a novel in conception and execution, than any kind of autobiography. And it is a novel about the lifelong impact of childhood trauma.


Part I – A Season For Assassins

Chapter 1. Bloody Sunday

The narrator is seven years old. He describes a 7-year-old’s eye view of Shanghai, a great deranged city of the future. His nanny is 17-year-old White Russian refugee Olga. His best friend is David Hunter. They both like making model airplanes and along with other boys engage in epic games of hide and seek across the vast metropolis. Jim loves seeing the Hell-Drivers, American dare-devils who crash their Fords and Chevrolets through flaming wooden barricades. Every morning municipal trucks collect the bodies of the hundreds of Chinese who have died during the night.

The Japanese invade China and Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek makes Shanghai – or the country just around it – one of his battlefields. Chinese planes fly overhead bombing the Japanese military barracks and the Japanese ships in the harbour.

One of them panics and drops a bomb just by the Great World Amusement Park, which kills just over a thousand civilians, mostly Chinese refugees. Shanghai natives are proud of the fact that this is the biggest death toll from one bomb in the history of human warfare.

Jim is caught in the bomb raid, he hears someone shouting his name, it is the Australian nanny of his rich friend David, calling from their chauffeur-driven car. More bombs fall, he is pulled to safety in a doorway by a British soldier. When he re-emerges and goes over to the car he sees the nanny slumped forward in the front seat of the car, young David in the background staring traumatised into space.

Violent death in cars, trauma, staring blankly, psychotic states of mental withdrawal from traumatic events – it all starts here.

Later the Europeans organise an outing to one of the battlefields outside the city, once the fighting has moved far away. Ladies with parasols walk among the wrecked trenches, among the equipment and ammunition and corpses littered everywhere. Jim hears David tittering to himself, a peculiarly disturbed sound, and sees his ‘jarred eyes’ beneath his fringe.

Chapter 2. Escape Attempts

Jump forward to Jim’s experiences in the Lunghua internment camp described so extensively in Empire of the Sun. It would be tempting to think Ballard is rehashing old ground but having finished the whole book, I realise now that these scenes are vital to his artistic purpose – which is to show the unerasable impact of early-life trauma.

We are introduced to other internees, especially 14-year-old Peggy Gardner, taller than Jim, thin, sensible, who tries to calm Jim’s permanent state of over-excitedness. He often slips into ‘hunger reveries’. He is often feverishly over-excited. Pretty much the whole of his subsequent writing career will be devoted to obsessively repeating and re-examining these extreme mental states.

His relations with Japanese soldiers Private Kimura and Sergeant Nagata.

His obsession with planes and flying, expanding on the model airplanes he and David built, his admiration of the American Flying Tigers who fought for Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists, but his equal admiration for the Japanese pilots he sees taking off through the camp fence from nearby Lunghua airport.

The reversal of values by which young Jim admires the Japanese soldiers for their discipline and efficiency and also, somehow, for their unpredictable violence. He admires the American prisoners in the camp for their laid-back, can-do spirit, their glossy American magazines, their confidence that America will win the war and they’ll soon be released.

Jim reserves his contempt for the British, mostly sunk in torpor and indifference, slow to make anything happen, but quick to scold and nag. The narrator repeats the insight from Empire of the Sun that the authority of the British Empire was irreparably damaged when the British forces at Singapore surrendered. Every colonised people in Asia immediately realised the British Empire’s days were numbered.

One night Jim is breaking into the brick-built food store, slowly scratching away at the mortar and removing one brick at a time, when the Jap guards send up a flare and reveal half a dozen Brits amid the camp wire trying to escape. Jim gets caught up in the roundup of the escapees. One of them is his boyhood friend David Hunter.  They are taken to the Jap barracks to be interrogated by camp commander Mr Hyashi, a former diplomat. Jim watches brutal Sergeant Nagata slapping and punching the escapees, sees the blood on David’s blonde hair and the bruises forming on his face.

Jim escapes severe punishment because he knows how to immediately kowtow to the Japs and say the right thing, namely that he likes it in Lunghua camp and wouldn’t dream of escaping, which is in fact true.

Chapter 3. The Japanese Soldiers

The war ends. Rumours sweep the camp of an American superbomb. The Japanese guards disappear. Jim walks out the open doors of the prison camp and describes the flat, waste lands around it, rice paddies and canals stretching for miles.

15-year-old Jim plans to walk back to Shanghai and the home of his parents. The eeriness of the empty landscape, apart from a few dead bodies, is brilliantly captured. Over it all hangs a strange uncanny light, which Jim associates with the light from the bomb. Ballard’s obsession with nuclear weapons starts here. Later he was to learn that the Japs had planned to march them inland to a death camp where they would have been liquidated. This didn’t happen because the Americans dropped the bomb.

In other words, J.G. Ballard owed his life to the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so when anxiety about the atom bomb and then the hydrogen bomb steadily grew through the 1950s and 60s he was utterly conflicted: on the one hand sharing the acute anxiety of everyone else that the world might be ended by a nuclear holocaust; at the same time owing his actual existence to the very technology which might at any second wipe out mankind.

You can see why the protagonists of so many of his stories are obsessed with the bomb and with the nuclear test sites at places like Enewatak atoll, epitomised by the extremely disturbing story The Terminal Beach. It’s because they all seek to resolve the contradiction of Ballard’s experience, but never can.

Jim stumbles up to an isolated rural station on the railway line and before he can stop realises it is occupied by four Japanese soldiers. Jim knows about Japanese soldiers. Show respect. Never run. Never show fear. Never argue or disagree.

While three of them potter about or lie with their backs against the wooden station building, one of the Japanese soldiers is slowly tying a Chinese peasant to one of the pillars holding up the roof. Slowly coiling him in telegraph wire they’ve cut down from nearby posts. Jim is forced to watch as the Chinese man is slowly bound and garrotted to death, and every second of his agony, and his imploring eyes, and his gargled noises are imprinted on Jim’s mind, in the hot noonday sun, and the complete silence of this abandoned station.

Time has stopped. This action means nothing. The Japanese know that they are dead and so nothing they do matters.

This scene, this moment and this event, the meaningless death of an unknown citizen which he is forced to watch in silence and stillness for over an hour, under a strange white sky, in an alien landscape – the memory of this scene recurs again and again later in the novel as a symbol for the nexus of inarticulable traumas Jim, and the other camp inhabitants and, by extension, millions of victims of the war, suffered.

For no particular reason, the Jap soldiers let him go and Jim stumbles along the railway lines finally reaching Shanghai and stumbling towards his boyhood home where he is reunited with his parents, who have survived the war at a different camp.

Things are restored to ‘normality’. Jim goes cruising the city with David Hunter who, he discovers, has developed a precocious taste for picking up Eurasian prostitutes and somehow making them so furious that they attack him in a mad frenzy. That’s the bit he wants. Replaying endlessly the beating he got in the camp from Sergeant Nagata.

Then Jim and his mother sail back to England. Even at the last moment, on the last page of the China section, Jim witnesses atrocity. The steamer they’re on passes an American landing craft and the homebound passengers see it is full of Japanese soldiers on their knees, wrists tied behind them, and they are being chivvied onto the beach by armed American soldiers towards a line of Chinese soldiers who have bayonets attached to their rifles and are waiting to bayonet the Japanese to death.

Part II – The Craze Years

I was marooned in a small, grey country where the sun rarely rose above the rooftops, a labyrinth of class and caste forever enlarging itself from within. The English talked as if they had won the war, but behaved as if they had lost it.

Chapter 4. The Queen of the Night

Ballard is a medical student at Cambridge and his work there is epitomised by the Dissection Room. Groups of students are allotted a cadaver and Ballard’s group is the only one to get a woman. Everything else that happens in this chapter is counterpointed by Ballard’s poetic descriptions of how this woman’s body is slowly flayed, the layers peeled back to reveal fat, muscle, tendons and then the vital organs, and he nicknames her the Queen of the Night, and is aware of a sort of psychological hold she has over him.

Ballard doesn’t like Cambridge, he certainly despises everything about his college (King’s College, the oldest and grandest college in Cambridge), disliking the daily madrigal singing in the chapel, seeing the whole place as a kind of flea-ridden tourist attraction.

‘It’s a glorified academic gift shop for American universities, where they can buy some quaint little professor for a few dollars. You need to be a tourist or an au pair girl top get the best out of it.’ (p.104)

That was in the early 1950s. Later, in 1978, he thinks:

Cambridge had expanded into a complex of industrial and science parks, ringed by monotonous housing estates and shopping precincts. At its centre, like the casbah in Tangier, was the antique heart of the university, a stopover for well-disciplined parties of Japanese tourists stepping from their TV-equipped German buses. As an undergraduate I had prayed for a new Thomas Cromwell who would launch the dissolution of the universities, but mass tourism had accomplished this, overwhelming the older European universities as it would soon destroy Rome, Florence, and Venice.

The narrator is desperate to escape the confines of college and get out to see the American bombers at the vast new airfields built across East Anglia for the fleets of bombers carrying nuclear weapons, and is hypnotised by the sight of rich American USAAF officers driving round in their huge shiny American cars, Chryslers and Oldsmobiles.

Again, this theme is reprised towards the end of the book in a way which sheds light on his lifelong obsession:

I parked in a narrow lane and stared through the perimeter fence at the worn concrete beside the nuclear weapons silos. The unsung and unremembered cement was more venerable than all the primped and polished stone of the university. The runways were aisles that led to a more meaningful world, gateways of memory and promise.

Jim sees Peggy, the scrawny teenage girl who helped him so much in the camp, came home on the same ship, and blossomed at her girls boarding school in Sussex. She pops up to Cambridge where the carries on being an older sister, chiding him about his scruffiness, his anti-Cambridge attitude, his obsession with Americans and the bomb. They discuss all this in terms of their experiences at Lunghua camp.

He meets an academic, a psychology professor Dr Richard Sutherland, who studied in America, has an American car, he has a pilot’s license and at weekends flies a gypsy moth, it’s even rumoured he’s been on television! He is ‘fast’, meaning trendy, before the word or concept had been invented.

One of his assistants is a girl still in the 6th form of her school, but knowing and sexy, Miriam who wears stylish American underwear and, he thinks, is probably sleeping with the Prof.

Nonetheless, Miriam seduces young student Jim into an affair and we have one of the first of what will be many, many coolly clinical anatomically precise descriptions of sex which includes what you might call unusual features, him placing his penis against her breast, kissing her armpit, her steering his fingers towards her anus.

Something about their combination of extreme sexuality and extreme clarity and calculation makes them very erotic, but the way that he describes with every one of the women in the book in the same clinical and geometric style made me wonder whether the sex scenes, like possibly everything else in the book, is stylised and contrived and completely untrue.

They make an odd trio: the trendy psychology professor, the haunted student and the sexy schoolgirl, driving out to the American air force bases to watch the nuclear bombers taking off and landing. Characters from an archetypal Ballard story, while the English around them seem remote and alien, p.94.

Chapter 5. The Nato Boys

Jump forward a few years and we learn that Jim has quit medical school and enrolled in the RAF. Still, as we readers know, Ballard will remain obsessed with the role and character and social position of The Doctor throughout his fiction, which is packed with doctor protagonists.

Jim enrolled because he wants to fly the big bombers which will start World War Three. But instead of learning to fly in tense divided Germany, Jim and his other volunteers are packed off to the frozen tundra of Canada, to Sakatchewan, to be precise. The whole chapter is underpinned by the sense that, in the overlit fields around the Lunghua camp, in the inexplicable silence and eeriness of the landscape, Jim realised that World War 2 had ended but World War 3 had begun, except that nobody else had noticed it. (p.106)

This perceptive but deranged conviction also underpins much of his later fiction – the name-changing central figure in The Atrocity Exhibition is trying to start World War 3, except not as we know it. As a kind of display of psychological extremes.

Also I hadn’t really understood the significance for his fiction of the fact that Ballard actually trained as a pilot. Manned flight is one of the central obsessions which recurs again and again throughout his works.

Jim describes the camaraderie in the mess, the national characteristics of the different Nato pilots training there. The Turks find it hardest because of the heavy North American food (waffles, turkey and milk).

Oh and David has accompanied him, the same David Hunter we met in Shanghai, he is going to haunt the novel like Jim’s alter ego. There is a prolonged section where David Hunter takes Jim to a brothel, they get completely hammered, so drunk we find Jim reeling on a bed before throwing up into his trousers which are lying on the floor, while two prostitutes take it in turns to suck David’s penis. David always insists on watching and being watched. Later he takes one of the whores into the bathroom and somehow makes her so angry that she attacks David, really beating and slapping him around the face. Jim simply points out it’s the nearest he can come to the times Sergeant Nagata slapped him round the face. Jim meanwhile tries to tenderly stroke and caress ‘his’ whore who, he realises, is pregnant.

One of the Turks, Captain Artvin, goes missing on a training flight in the Harvard planes they use. A few days later Jim, ignoring regulations and flying freely across the frozen tundra, see what he thinks might be the cabin of a drowned plane in a lake.

Jim tells David. He goes out on a second trip, taking so long to relocate the lake that, on the way back, he runs out of fuel and crash lands his plane on a road half buried under blizzard snow. There’s a funny moment when a mink farmer drives by, eyes the half crashed plane with Jim sitting stunned in the cockpit, then drives on.

The mink farmers hate the pilots who deliberately dive and scare their animals. No love lost on the bleak Canadian tundra. Jim is disciplined at an enquiry, and realises the air force is not for him. Miriam had written him a letter saying she’d got a job on a Fleet Street paper. He wants to return to England and explore her amazing American underwear.

Chapter 6. Magic World

Jump forward and Jim has married Miriam and they have two small children. He is now living in a modest suburban house in Shepperton. He explains some of the mystique of Shepperton, surrounded by water, the River Thames and the gravel quarries.

He takes his small children to a piece of rough ground behind Shepperton Studios where there are disused props to play with and which they call Magic World.

This chapter contains very beautiful descriptions of domestic intimacy, of them making love, but it is mixed up with her first pregnancy and giving birth in the hospital which Miriam found so alienating she insisted the second one was delivered at home, a process Ballard describes with a wonderful evocation of intimacy.

They watch Prof Richard Sutherland from Cambridge, who is now a TV academic and pundit, reporting from Cape Canavarel, one of the new generation of media academics whose role, Ballard perceptively suggests, is to teach ‘the world to feel more at ease with itself’ (p.127).

David Hunter pops by. He carried on the Canadian training, served in Kenya, then flew nuclear-armed Vulcans, drifted along the fringes of private aviation, then bought an aerial photography company (p.128). He has the air of a man scared the past is going to creep up and tap him on the shoulder. Long-term post-traumatic stress. They sit up late over whiskey. David reminds Jim of his experience at the railway station. He’s going back to Shanghai, does Jim want to come with?

Jim says ‘No’. Later in bed with Miriam they discuss it. They touch and fondle and caress and discuss. It is a beautiful evocation of married life. Then her third labour begins and there is a vivid, intimate description of labour, complete with farts and piles, and then the arrival of their third child who Ballard describes with eerie precision, like a visitor from an era millions of years old.

Chapter 7. The Island

Miriam and Jim and their three small children are on holiday in Spain, a place called Ampiabravura. Jim foolishly tries to swim round the headland but is nearly run over by a ferry and ends up clambering ashore on a long isolated sandbank.

Miriam motorboats out with the kids and they discover a remote half-abandoned building, which seems to be occupied by a group of half naked hippies.

Miriam explains he’s been back in England for eighteen years and it’s become clear he’ll never feel at home here. (So if he returned in 1945 this must be 1963. He says they’ve been married for 8 years i.e. married in 1955 when Ballard – born 1930 – was 25)

There’s an extended passage describing the new sun-worshipping beach culture which was being established along the 3,000 mile littoral of the Mediterranean (a feature, a mindset of many of his story, not least The Largest Theme Park in the World from 1989). He and Miriam have very clinical sex in hotel bedrooms and bathrooms, her adopting gymnastic poses against mirrors, watching his reflection. Maybe this happened but it feels very… male.

When they return to the secret house on the sandbank, other people are there, a tall blonde man with long hair, women swimming naked. Early hippies. The man is Peter Lykiard, teaches at Regent Street Poly, there’s another couple, and a young American student, Sally Mumford. They smoke joints, they have copies of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg. Groovy.

Jim and Miriam’s little kids love them. Sally is very good with the kids, calls them pixies. Her father is a millionaire, owner of a Boston department store. Miriam feels like a square.

They are all now a big gang and drive to a nearby town to watch a bullfight. Predictably this triggers primeval urges of blood and violence but it triggers Sally to an outburst of insane violence, she goes into the ring at the climax of the fight, tries to ride the bull, gets lots in a melee, they later find her in the compound for bullfighters and their followers being pushed around, her clothes torn, in a daze.

Next day, back at their special beach, the kids are playing supervised by Miriam, Lykiard and the other couple are in the house, Sally comes and lies by Jim, hands him a joint and makes it clear that she is sexually available, resting her breast against his arm. When he doesn’t respond or rise to the bait she simply stands up, not insulted or aggrieved and strolls off.

On page 157 Miriam us skipping down the steps of the villa, when she stumbles and hits her head on the stone edge. The crack is so loud everyone turns. Jim runs over to her as she looks up dazed. They help her into the inflatable dinghy they use to get to and from the sandbank, she struggles to get out at the main beach, they help her to the hotel where Jim calls a doctor. A practicante arrives and at first says they’ll keep her under observation, but only minutes later calls for an ambulance, as Miriam drifts in and out of consciousness, increasingly confused. Jim accompanies her, massaging her legs as she struggles to breathe with an oxygen mask. By the time they reach the hospital she is dead, p.160.

Chapter 8. The Kindness of Women

Miriam is buried in the Protestant cemetery at Fuigueras. All his friends find it hard to look at him. He has the feeling all the women in the world are withdrawing. He packs up their stuff and drives all the way back across Spain and France with a bottle of whiskey between his thighs.

All the past he had tried to reject – all the dead of China and the war, and especially the young Chinese he saw being strangled to death – race up to stare him in the face.

Miriam’s sister, Dorothy and her husband, are waiting to greet them at the Shepperton home. He clears out Miriam’s drawer, underwear and contraceptives. Slowly he reorientates his perspectives to ready himself for a life raising three small children by himself.

In a scene of intense eroticism a hug with Miriam’s sister Dorothy turns into sex as she makes a conscious decision to console him, and partakes of very Ballardian geometric sex in which people position themselves at angles, move penises around, dangle breasts, rearrange thighs and generally come across as pornographic meccano.

Everything I’ve ever experienced of mature English women tells me a) she’d never have done it b) she’d certainly never have had the rather theoretical architectural sex Ballard describes. Can’t help thinking this is utter fantasy.

Ballard describes the everyday misandry of pretty much everyone they know, plus the school and the authorities, all of whom think a father is not capable of bringing up small children. As a househusband who brought up my small children, I encountered exactly the same prejudices in the 2000s.

‘For God’s sake, men are capable of loving their children.’ (p.171)

Peggy drops by for another one of the conversations in which she reviews his life which are a feature of the book. She is now a very self-possessed pediatrician at Guy’s Hospital. They embrace and Jim feels a stirring but Peggy pulls away. She is the sensible older sister in their relationship.

Friends and colleagues are polite, supportive, David Hunter invites him to parties and navigates him towards eligible women, but at the same time there is a conspiracy of silence: none of his friends can bring themselves to mention his dead wife.

The narrator says he almost envies JFK’s widow, at least nobody can try and sweep her grief under the carpet and, in a flash, I realise the vast psychological importance the JFK assassination must have had for Ballard. It happened in the same year his lost his wife – it was a vast public, global outpouring of grief inextricably linked to Ballard’s own domestic private grief.

An English publisher based in New York takes Ballard out to strip clubs in Soho. This gives Ballard an opportunity to mock the explicit but utterly bored, passionless routines of the porno dancers, as formalised as the routines of air hostesses running you through the emergency drill before take-off.

A friend of Miriam’s pops round while the kids are at school and in a mature, open, unembarrassed way persuades Jim to have sex with her while she’s perched on the edge of the spindryer, the vibrations, you see.

Chapter 9. Craze People

It is now the mid-60s and these are represented for Ballard by Prof Lykiard, pipe smoking, running an arts laboratory, exhibitions of Vietnam atrocities, theatre of Cruelty, Burroughs and so on. Invites Ballard to write notes for an exhibition of images based round the JFK assassination. And Sally, who drops by to play with the pixies and is at the epicentre of the 60s maelstrom, high on amphetamines, editing documentaries about warzones, attending spiritualist events, rock concerts.

Ballard is invited to read some of his works at a massive music festival in Sussex. They take the kids, Sally looks after them but she is disconcerted to discover Lykiard having it off with one of the performance artists backstage. Ballard finds her later, beyond the festival boundaries, playing with some horses in a field. Later she insists they drive to the Sussex coast and, while the children watch, she wades out dangerously far into the water, is knocked off her feet and gets into danger of drowning, until Ballard wades out and rescues her. Blankets and the sense that she is a casualty, infinitely vulnerable, psychic damage.

Later that evening, back in Shepperton, the put the pixies to bed, she is bathed and changed and their sitting on the sofa, she snuggles up to him and makes it clear she is available for sex but when it comes to it, asking to be sodomised, turning her buttocks to him, forcing her face into the pillows, offering her hands behind her back so he can grab her wrists and push them upwards, pinning her, hurting her, as she calls out: ‘Bugger me, Daddy! Beat me! Pixie wants to be buggered!’

I found this whole sequence of events intensely erotic, and at the same time you are obviously intended to realise the depth of her psychological damage, her unloving possibly abusive father, her drug addiction, her manic throwing herself into all the hectic art events of the swinging 60s.

And you also wonder, here as in so many other places, whether any of this happened, or it is entirely fictional.

Sally becomes his guide to the heady swirl of the 1960s, and to sexual liberation. He introduces her to Dick Sutherland, the TV scientist, and this allows Ballard to describe his version of the 60s, not a time of utopian hope, but an era when endless images of violence and atrocity blared from TV screens and sex was so blasted in everyone’s faces that emotion and feeling were exterminated.

This, we realise, is the milieu which produced the intense and weird texts which go to make up what I consider to be Ballard’s masterpiece, The Atrocity Exhibition for example he describes Dick Sutherland carrying out trendy psychology experiments such as submitting subjects to intense footage of war atrocities (Vietnam, Congo) and asking questionnaires about its impact on their sex lives.

Well that is exactly the subject of one of the last chapters in The Atrocity Exhibition.

Then one night she is hosting a party at her ramshackle Bayswater digs, packed with performance artists and film-makers, Dick Sutherland and Lykiard are there. But none of them can prevent Ballard stumbling into a spare bedroom where he finds Sally on her back on the quilted top of the laundry basket, her legs hoiked up round the shoulders of a young Spanish photographer whose trousers are round his hips as he steadily, strongly fucks her. Sally stares past the Spaniard at Jim, smiling happily.

That, also, is a lesson about a decade which Ballard sees entirely in terms of its psychic damage and louring threat, atrocity, nuclear war, Vietnam, theatre of cruelty, drugs and betrayal.

Chapter 10. Kingdom of Light

17 June 1967. Under the supervision of long-time friend, TV pundit and psychologist Richard Sutherland, Ballard has an acid trip, described in terms almost identical to the prolonged fantasia which is his novel, The Unlimited Dream Company. He realises that

Shepperton was a solar garden, a sleeping paradise waiting to be woken from every stone and leaf. (p.206)

which is very much the subject of The Unlimited Dream Company.

The kids are taken out by Cleo Churchill, a childrens book editor Jim’s met at one of Sutherland’s many swinging parties who turns out to live locally and be happy to babysit sometimes, and takes them to Shepperton Park by the river. In fact, later on and well into the acid trip, Sutherland takes a phone call in Ballard’s study, taking his eye off his ward, who gets up and sleepwalks, staggers through prisms of light, as far as Shepperton Park where he sees his children, but especially Chloe Churchill, transformed into a Gustave Moreau archangel, sheathed in multi-coloured lights.

By now I doubt whether anything like this happened, but it is convenient because it means whenever Chloe pops up in the rest of the book, Ballard can have acid flashbacks of her as a rainbow angel of glory.

Sutherland had pitched filming Ballard taking the acid as a programme proposal to the head of documentaries at the BBC. This brings out Sutherland’s popularity but he’s not actually a part of the machine. And the text repeats his justification of acid, namely that the world most of us perceive, made up of discrete objects, with their correct places, governed by laws of gravity and geometry and, above all, by a sense of consecutive Time, are entirely artefacts of the central nervous system and brain which we have evolved to help us cope and manage the objects, other people and other animals around us. But they aren’t the truth. Taking acid isn’t like getting drunk or stoned. It goes far deeper than that, it reveals the world the human nervous system spends most of its time hiding us from.

Having taken acid a dozen or so times I couldn’t agree more. One trip is enough to show you the absolute wonder and amazement of what the human senses are actually perceiving every second of every day – but which are repressed, turned off, ignored so we can get on with being the instrumental, purposive, time-focused animals we are.

Delete all those repressive mechanisms and you experience the central nervous system without its locks and gates, you experience ‘reality’ unleashed. More accurately, you experience the overwhelming flood of sensations which are bodies are receiving all the time, but which the evolved CNS suppresses.

From a literary point of view it’s interesting to see that Ballard uses a lot of the phraseology and imagery which made such an impact in The Crystal World i.e. everyday objects are invested with multiple-angled shards of light, as if embedded in jewels.

My arms and legs were dressed in light, sheathes of mother-of-pearl that formed a coronation armour. (p.203)

In the aftermath, everything seems grey and drab. Shepperton has exhausted itself. A few days later Peggy Gardner drops by. She is more than ever the prim, respectable, professional spinster. Predictably she disapproves of the acid trip and especially the way Sutherland uses Jim in his psychological-TV-media experiments.

But Ballard links it back to Shanghai, Lunghua and the primal scene in chapter three, the four Japanese soldiers torturing a Chinese to death while Jim looks on in terror in an alien landscape. Now, when Ballard repeats his characteristically Ballard ideas, we have a much deeper sense of where they come from.

When he speculates that war is how nations escape from time it sort of makes sense. Certainly if you’ve read British war memoirs, it’s striking how many men were drifting or unhappy, and the call-up in August 1914 liberated many of them from the sense of inevitability and duty and failure implicit in the idea of having to get a career, get on in the world etc. For the duration of the war all those worriers were suspended.

But Ballard means something deeper and expresses it with a surreal logic which is distinctively his, the notion that the Japanese soldiers wanted were waiting for the next war, and that their torture of the Chinese was an attempt to provoke the next war into starting, so they could be free again. It’s only as irrational as thousands of other religious rites and rituals and invocations and calls on the gods or the world to do what we want.

If you fully enter Ballard’s imaginative world, if you buy into his premises, if you experience his experiences – then this kind of claim makes complete sense. Otherwise, you remain on the outside.

All that said, a few weeks later Sutherland is due to pop round with another dose of acid. Jim is at the door seeing off Cleo who has, again, obligingly agreed to take the kids to Magic World, she calmly disapproves, the kids run up to Jim shouting, ‘Come on Daddy, come with us’ and… He does. Once was enough. He turns his back on Dick Sutherland’s dubious psych experiments. As they say in Trainspotting – Choose life.

Chapter 11. The Exhibition

Sally Mumford is back. She’s progressed from speed to heroin and her arms are covered in needle marks and sores, but she still lovers the kids. For Ballard she represents all the toxic hysteria of the 1960s (or Ballard has invented her as a symbol of the same):

Like so many others at the end of the 60s, that ten-year pharmaceutical trial, she thought of the media landscape as a life-support system, force feeding a diet of violence and sensation into her numbed brain. (p.215)

In fact reading that quote at the start of this chapter makes me realise that Ballard is artfully introducing his key theme. As I’ve explained in my reviews of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, those books contain fairly straightforward explanations of his obsession with extreme pornography and car crashes, which is that a diet of super-violent war images and atrocities (epitomised by the endless replaying of the JFK assassination) has numbed and desensitised people, so only extremes of sex and sensation can reconnect them.

Reinforcing the mood of hysteria, we are reintroduced to David Hunter who is becoming more deranged. As the years pass he seems to blame Ballard more and more for Miriam’s death. He’s never read any of Ballard’s books, pointing out that he knows the key, the master plot, already. David gives him a lift back from London and goes and parks his car outside a posh Belgravia house out of which emerges a smart little man who David then menaces with his car. It is the Japanese ambassador. And so on.

By this stage I had realised that The Kindness of Women is a kind of handbook, or set of case studies, in post-traumatic stress survivors.

David now flies vintage cars in displays. He invites Ballard and Sally and the kids to one. Although his real passion is saloon car racing at Brands Hatch. He has twice been cautioned for dangerous driving. The reader who knows their Ballard knows where this is all heading.

David is driving Sally back from the air display when they crash, near the approach to Chertsey Road. Ballard follows on later and so is slowed down by the police who are managing the traffic flow past the wrecked cars. David and Sally are both fine, unscathed, but Ballard gets a look of them posed in driving seat and back seat, both frozen in time, staring into space, covered in broken windscreen glass, described in exactly the same phrases which fill Crash.

I was struck by their self-conscious pose, like dancers arrested in an audience-catching flourish at the end of their performance…the postures they assumed within the cabin of the Jaguar, as if they were memorising for future use the exact geometry of Sally’s exposed thighs and the ribbed leather of the upholstery, the precise angle between David’s crutch and the jut and rake of the steering wheel. (p.219)

Did this ever happen? Or is it an entirely fictional recreation of the scenes and phraseology of Crash? Ballard notices the number of people who’ve stopped to gawp at the crashed cars, some of them have got cine cameras out to film the scene. It is, he realises, a new type of street theatre, hypnotic attraction to a pile-up of technology which is somehow linked to the television and its relentless diet of violence and atrocity.

Subsequently David and Sally make complete recoveries, the latter driving Jim back up to London in her dangerous MG while explaining that the thrill of driving dangerously with the ever-present risk of a crash is identical to the motivation of the bullfight (remember the bullfighting scene back in chapter 7, aha, that’s why that was there: to prepare us for this speech), updated to the late 20th century.

Sally is lost in the maze of streets in Marylebone when a sports car surges out of a side street, nearly crashes into them, and hurtles off. Ballard had just had time to grab the wheel and steer the MG out of its path, while Sally did an emergency brake.

It was David. Sally explains that he follows her around, then she follows him. They pretend to crash into each other. This is the plot of Crash. Really rammed home when Sally takes Jim’s hand, puts is between her legs so he can feel how wet she is, and they proceed to have typically clinical Ballard sex amid the clutter of steering wheels and handbrakes, while both of them are aware of David Hunter (aha! his name! was his bland name chosen to lead up to this scene all along) roams the streets of London in his fast car, hunting for prey.

Hunter is, in fact, recreating the endless games of hide and seek which Ballard described them both playing through the vast metropolis of Shanghai, back in their innocent boyhoods. Or is he? Are both fictional inventions?

Cut to the exhibition of crashed cars which Ballard staged at Dick Sutherland’s experimental Arts Theatre Laboratory for four weeks in 1969. Ballard quotes the program notes which claim the car crash is a vector focusing all the violence and anxieties of the age (not least of thermonuclear war) into an event which happens daily, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands each year, and yet which is celebrated on TV and in movies, is presented as a form of entertainment (p.226).

At the opening night the guests behave appallingly, getting drunk, throwing up on the cars, urinating on and in them, fights break out and Sally is nearly raped in the back seat of the smashed-up Lincoln, until rescued by Ballard and Chloe Churchill, who has come along to be a voice of reason amid the madness, although Ballard, typically listens to her sensible comments but sees her reincarnated as the angle of light he saw during his acid trip.

Driving back from that party, Ballard is following Sally in her MG when he becomes entranced in their game and, accidentally-on-purpose, clips the rear fender of her car. This sends her into a zig zag but Ballard loses control of his own car which, as he brakes, veers into the fast lane, one of its tyres explodes, it crashes against the central reservation, turned onto its side and then upside down, skids at speed on its roof, Ballard hanging upside down from his safety belt, into the oncoming traffic.

The emergency services soon arrive, drag him out onto the grass verge, a figure pushes through the quickly assembling crowd and flicks a cigarette lighter lowering it to his face. It is Sally, forensically fascinated to examine his expression, as clinical as Ballard had been when he flayed and unpeeled the dead carcass back at medical school.

There’s a coda: in the last days of the 1960s Ballard attends a demolition derby held at a disused football ground in the East End, as the drivers crash into each other, one of whom is David Hunter who, after he’s crashed out of the competition lies back in his shattered cabin while Sally Mumford in white jeans and crimson jacket yells at him.

Did any of this happen? It feels very very pat, just so, and when Ballard references the Hell Drivers of Shanghai which he had described in chapter one, the reader wonders whether anyone’s actual life could be so wonderfully choreographed and thematically linked.

Chapter 12. In The Camera Lens

Jim is at a film festival in Brazil with Dick Sutherland, who he first met at Cambridge in the early 1950s and have watched morph into an early example of that new social type, the media don, the science presenter. Dick and Jim are attending a film festival in Copacabana.

This chapter neatly captures the way a lot of the behaviours which (apparently) seemed so liberating in the 1960s when they broke through the grey carapace of austerity Britain, somehow came to seem corrupt and tacky and embarrassing in the 1970s e.g. casual sex, drugs (specifically cocaine), flares, long hair, experimental films, TV and foreign jollies

The festival mainly consists of ogling the stunningly sexy Brazilian women taking part in various parades, and attending endless parties. In two brief surreal scenes he finds himself being introduced to the cast of Star Trek, already grey-haired and uncomfortably acting the roles they’ll be famous for till they die, who look like ‘venerable morticians’ (p.238) and to the legendary film director Fritz Lang.

Both encounters add to Ballard’s sense that we all live in a sort of heightened reality TV show. The centrepiece of the festival is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey which, in fact, a glance at Wikipedia tells me was released in May 1968. (Elsewhere in this blog I’ve reviewed the Arthur C. Clarke novel and sequels)

Characteristically, Sutherland is said to be running an alternative festival of science documentaries, and some of these are right up Ballard’s alley. They include a film documenting the treatment of extreme sex offenders, which included varieties of aversion therapy i.e. showing them images of children or vulnerable women and then giving them electric shocks or emetics. Ballard didn’t watch the film, he stood and watched the audience, mainly made up of documentary filmmakers and psychologists who sit entranced, occasionally oohing with appreciation as the patients are given electric shocks or vomit, exactly – says Ballard waspishly – as the devotees in a Soho sex theatre sit entranced, occasionally murmuring their approval at a particularly graphic sex scene.

This leads up to the kind of gnomic remark you suspect Ballard is proud of: ‘In the future everyone will need to be a film critic to make sense of anything’ (p.241). I can see this emblazoned in huge letters over the entrance to the hundreds of Media Studies courses now taught all across the UK and beyond. It sounds good, but it’s not really true. It’s a very dated idea. Nowadays being a data analyst would be more help. As far as I can tell, media studies like gender studies and queer studies and all the rest are stuck in a time warp, still reading Marxist, psycho-analytical, structuralist, post-structuralist and feminist theory, while the world we inhabit has moved on.

A leading film critic on a Rio newspaper introduces our two middle-aged Englishmen to two Rio hookers, Carmen and Fortunata. This is the beginning of Dick and Jim’s ‘odyssey’ which the reader immediately spots is a kind of satirical counterpoint to what Ballard thought was Kubrick and Clarke’s overblown space fantasy.

The Rio hookers take our heroes back to their knocking shop which is two rooms adjacent to a sweatshop in which lots of other poor women manufacture mementos of the film festival, stapling together posters of Robert Redford or Jane Fonda, amid the din of the printworks. The scene also counterpoints the scene in chapter five where David and Jim spent the night with two Canadian whores in a double bedroom.

The general idea is to show the ubiquity of prostitution, and the surprising light it sheds on modern sexuality. There’s a striking moment when Jim’s hooker, Carmen, asks if he wants to film them having sex – a camera and tripod are set up in the corner, obviously it’ll cost extra. That’s not the jolt. The jolt comes when she says, maybe he’d like film of it so he can show his girlfriend. Or his wife. The fact that the equipment is set up and she knows about it, demonstrates that this is common enough to be a commercial venture i.e. it sheds light on modern marriage. Well, some modern marriages.

Dick had (wisely) refused to even enter the ‘bedroom’ of his hooker, Fortunata, it was so filthy, dishevelled, the sheets stained with mucus and lubricant and spermicidal jelly like the car bay at a garage. Instead, when Jim finally finishes fucking Carmen, and she professionally scoops his leaking semen into a succession of tissues, Jim slowly dresses and opens the door back into the workshop to find Richard and Fortunata running round it throwing tatty tourist mementos at each other. A sort of comic counterpoint to the end of the Canada prostitute story in which David provoked his hooker into smacking his face, in memory of Sergeant Nagata.

In a kind of coda, or punchline scene, the Rio film critic hosts a massive party at his mansion, where Jim, sauntering around, comes across a room which has been sealed off, which turns out to be full of lights and technicians and cameramen etc where Carmen is on hands and knees, doggy fashion, and a vexed dog handler is fondling the genitals of a German shepherd. They are trying to get the dog to get an erection and to penetrate Carmen from behind, while she flicks back her hair and looks behind her in boredom, and the host ans various other guests stand around holding their wine glasses and chatting.

Ballard describes all this as if this level of intense pornography is the future, tied to the rise and rise of desensitising TV. But I disagree. I think that vision of a world totally corrupted by TV and pornography is itself very dated, very 70s, dragging on into the 80s, and ended up being a misleading guide to what actually happened.

And now, in 2020, we live in a world where unlimited hard-core pornography is available to anyone at the click of a mouse and yet, the interesting thing about the vast parallel universe of porn on the internet is not that it exists – it’s that so many people choose not to watch it most of the time.

Chapter 13. The Casualty Station

David Hunter has been sent to a mental institute, Summerfield Hospital in south London. Here Ballard visits him, reflecting on the sequence of events that brought them there, and noting the behaviour of the other insane patients. David is pretty compos mentis as mental cases go. Ballard takes a chessboard, they play chess, and David always palms a piece before the end of the game so Ballard will have to come back.

They chat about old times. We are informed that Sally has decamped to Scotland, staying with a friend of her rich father’s trying out the then-new methadone treatment for heroin addiction. This follows her turning up at Shepperton a few months earlier, utterly string out on heroin, refusing to talk or be touched, striding up and down the kids empty bedrooms, ransacking the cupboards for their old toys. Jim takes her to his GP who recommends a specialist who recommends a nursing home on the Thames, and then onto Scotland.

David went back to Shanghai, something Jim says he can’t do, David hunted for the isolated railway station which is the recurrent image of the novel, but couldn’t find it. (The reader suspects this is because it never existed, but was a fictional symbol invented by Ballard.) David points out the car crash exhibition was simply Ballard’s way of re-enacting the atrocity he witness. ‘At a few removes’.

It was car crashing that brought him to the asylum. He and Sally developed a cult of driving up one-way streets the wrong way and one night in London had a head-on collision with a woman cellist who was killed instantly. It was only his demented gibbering at the scene and his RAF record in Kenya which saved him from a manslaughter charge. Instead he was sent to Repton mental home and now here.

In Ballard’s view, David had tried to recreate the cruelty he experienced in China, not realising that the psychopathic, TV-addicted, atrocity newsreel footage-driven 60s was egging him on. He’s just one among tens of thousands of casualties of the 1960s.

The third of Ballard’s representative trio is the TV don, Dick Sutherland and he emerged from the 60s with flying colours, making a series of pop science documentaries, notably one which used the latest fibre-optic technology to film inside the body especially, of course inside the uterus during sex etc, as well as setting up an Institute for Sexual Research, funded by a New York publisher.

It’s a funny thing, but the more Ballard talks about sex and the sex studies and practices of his characters, the more dated the book feels, reminding you that these events happened almost 50 years ago, in a very different time and place, where simply filming sex acts between humans to appear in ‘scientific’ documentaries appeared revolutionary.

When Professor Sutherland sounds off, in one of their stage-managed conversations, telling Jim that there’s going to be more and more sex in the future, so much so that it is going to create ‘new forms of social structure’ – it sounds as dated and, in its way, as childish as Space 1999 or UFO or Joe 90 or all those other TV series for kids which predicted colonies on the moon and everyone wearing zip-up plastic suits by 1999.

Didn’t turn out like that, did it.

We learn that Sally let herself be persuaded to take part in some of Dick’s experiments, let fibre-optic cables be inserted in her vagina while she had sex with a laboratory volunteer, as well as close-ups of every erogenous zone of her body. Slowly she came to think of herself as a set of dismembered parts, eventually expecting to see huge blow-ups of her nipples or clitoris on roadside billboards or upholstering the banquettes of trendy 70s nightclubs. Thus she went to pieces, almost literally.

Peggy Gardner is the last of the set of recurring characters (what David sardonically refers to as ‘the old Shanghai firm’, p.274) which, the reader realises, structure the narrative and allow Ballard to meditate on the fate of his contemporaries.

She turns up for drinks in Shepperton, and they have a couple of pages chatting about how things have turned out. Into her mouth Ballard puts quite severe criticisms of his (Ballard’s) attitude, how he manipulated everyone around him (Dick, Sally, David) to act out his nightmares, how the exhibitions, the drugs, the weird sex and the intense stories are all part of the same indictment. He patronises her a bit, telling her how she’s always looked after her so well and she slaps him in the face, drawing blood.

Rather disappointingly, this leads to sex, described with the same clinical detachment as all the other acts of coitus, and the strange angles of thighs and vulvas and penises as all the other descriptions.

Now this chapter returns to its opening scene, with Jim sitting at a table in Summerfield Hospital playing chess with David. The entire text has been very carefully crafted and arranged as a description of both what happened at the end of the 1960s and how the Shanghai firm had managed.

One of the other patients, a deranged old lady who had been taking daffodils from all the vases in the communal area and laying them carefully in a line at the entrance to a window alcove, has a fit and turns her brimming cup of tea. This is, in a way, a key scene. Jim had observed the woman unable to reconcile the light shining off the brimming meniscus of tea in her cup with the polished glare of the hard floor. Eventually she thinks her way through the problem to the solution and upends her cup, sending tea splashing all over the table and the skirt of the woman handing it out. Who promptly gets furious, grabs the feeble old woman’s wrist and gives her such a push, she sends her collapsing onto the floor.

Ballard is up out of her seat, and goes to her protection, taking her in his arms and then lifting her off the floor, she is so thing and wasted, and taking her down the corridor to the safety of her room. As he carries her, she repeats pitifully, ‘Jesus told me to.’ The point is, if you’ve read enough Ballard, you understand her. You feel, as she did, the mental pain of these conflicting geometries (shimmering liquid v. hard tabletop) and you grasp the Einsteinian brilliance of her solution. To marry hard and soft by spilling the tea, by trying to integrate these conflicting realities.

Jim says goodbye to David, promising to be back in a fortnight and making a mental note to bring daffodils for the mad old lady, and… we understand why.

Part III – After The War

Chapter 14. Into The Daylight

As the 1970s progressed, Sally had disappeared back to America to address her drug habit and other addictions. One day, to his surprise, four years after she left (eight years after the decade’s end so, presumably, 1978), Ballard gets a call and it’s Sally, not only back in the UK, but married! with a child! and living in rural contentment in Norfolk!

Ballard drives out to see Sally, stopping off at Cambridge en route to discover it is now a land of business parks and Japanese tourists. Chez Sally he discovers her little girl, Jackie, is mentally disabled, but is touched by the way Sally is madly in love with her and, when her husband returns from work, with him too.

[Jackie] stared at her father with her trusting, fixed smile, as if she were crossing the world at a slight angle to the rest of us.

The chapter has a second theme, like a piece of classical music, which is that Sally’s husband, Edward, is an amateur archaeologist and along with friends has undertaken a programme of excavating old World War Two airplanes from the mud of Norfolk estuaries where they’ve crashed.

David turns up. He’s been released from the mental home. He’s married an Asian woman and is running an airfreight company in Brussels. The presence of these two leads to nostalgic conversations, with an autumnal feeling.

Then there is the gruesome event at the heart of the chapter. Edward and his hearty beer-drinking team of enthusiasts have hired a hoist which they use to lift their latest find clear of the river mud. It is a spitfire. But as it rises the narrator realises its cockpit glass is unshattered and unopened. The pilot is still inside. Or what’s left of him. Jim and Sally are suddenly stiff with concern as David makes his way over to it and insists on helping to open the cockpit and inspect the insides, which, as they spray cleaning water into it, reveals a rotted uniform, straps and, slowly emerging, a skull and bones.

A week or so later there is an official burial service. Jim attends along with David and is impressed that his old buddy wears his official RAF uniform and stands to attention. In a weird touch, he brings along a Korean he only half knows. Jim realises the Korean is the closest he could find to a Japanese. He needed an Asiatic to bear witness ‘to the interment of all his resentments of the past forty years.’ I found this intensely moving.

Chapter 15. The Final Programme

After a career pursuing TV fame, Dick Sutherland has been diagnosed with cancer and is dying. This gives Ballard the opportunity to put into his mouth a series of witty paradoxes and insights about modern medicine, and the treatment of cancer in particular.

But, trooper to the last, Sutherland has persuaded a TV company to make a documentary filming his last months and persuaded them to take Jim, by now a famous novelist and old pal, to be his interviewer. The idea is that Jim will go to his home, or hospital bed, and interview Dick as he declines.

As you might expect it’s a bumpy ride, with Dick and Jim initially chewing over their glory days in the 1960s, the space programme, adventures in science, but with each successive interview these reassuring totems of the past disappear and the final interview is cancelled. Jim arrives but after a brief conversation Dick dismisses him, the film crew and the outside world and shuts his bedroom door. Two weeks later Jim turns up just in time to see him being wheeled on a gurney into an ambulance, his face sucked into the oxygen mask, his body coiled with plastic tubes like the young Chinese man the boy Jim watched being garrotted to death.

Chapter 16. The Impossible Palace

Paradoxically, Dick’s death exhilarates Jim. He feels liberated, released, energised to pursue his work, It as if the whole of the past has been burned along with Dick’s body at the crematorium. In a sentence which is important for critics or fans of his work, he writes:

 By demystifying his own death he had freed me from any fears of my own. For the first time since the birth of my children I felt that I was wholly done with the past and free to construct a new world from the materials of the present and future.

So was it writing Empire of the Sun which liberated Ballard from the past and left him much more interested in writing stories about the present day? Or was it the death of this old friend which liberated him from his obsessions, set him free to write about the strangeness of the present day? Or are both blinds to something else which happened?

Anyway, in this chapter Ballard walks down to the fair on Shepperton Green. The chapter is written in the style of The Unlimited Dream Company, full of images of light, and beauty, and time suspended. Cleo Churchill, the friend of his wife’s who was such a good friend to Jim and babysat his kids on countless occasions, is with him as he goes through mementos of Dick Sutherland’s life, sent him by Dick’s sister.

This mood of sensitive elegy moves seamlessly into their holding each other, then embracing, then going up to the bedroom and slowly undressing. Ballard has, by now, perfected a peculiarly detached and clinical way of describing sex, which, nonetheless, manages to be touching and affectionate. Maybe because of the complete honesty and openness it implies between the lovers.

I held Cleo’s breasts in my hands, touching the blue veins that ran past her broad nipples, and caressed away the pink grooves left by the wiring of her brassiere. I kissed a small scar in her armpit, relic of a childhood I had never known, and ran my lips through the shoal of silver stretch marks, like seeds of time spilled across her abdomen by Ceres herself as she sowed her fields. She held my penis in her hands, rolling it gently between her palms, her fingers drawing on my scrotum. Phallic corridors receded from us, an erotic labyrinth in an impossible palace. When I kissed Cleo’s nipples a battalion of lovers bent their heads. I sat on the bed as she knelt on the carpet between my knees, her forearms resting on my thighs. She took the head of my penis in her mouth, touching the tip of my urethra with her tongue, then sank deeper to hold the shaft between her teeth, biting lightly on the swollen muscle.

They become lovers or partners or whatever the correct terminology is. Thus on the day that the documentary about Dick’s death is broadcast they decide to go outside and celebrate life by hiring a boat and cruising down the Thames to Runnymede. (Many of the chapters have this structure, of two major themes or events juxtaposed.)

They cruise as far as the Kennedy Memorial (which I have visited and photographed) and which, inevitably gives rise to reflections from Ballard, absolutely obsessed with the Kennedy assassination as his fiction is.

I thought of the role that Kennedy and his assassination had played in my own life, and how his televised images had shaped the imagination of the 1960s. Stills from the Zapruder film had seemed more poignant than a Grünewald crucifixion.

Now they are accidental bystanders of a death and a resurrection. It’s a sunny day beside the Thames and a wife is reversing their car to push the trailer for a speed boat across a narrow beach into the river so that the husband can man-handle the boat, in the water, onto the just-submerged trailer. There is a little girl in the back seat and as the wife loses control of the trailer it drags the car into the river where the tide takes it. The girl is screaming and beating on the closed windows as the car sinks under the water level. Ballard bounds forward and tries to open the back door but the car skews away from him, as the husband leaves go of the boat which drifts across the river, hitting another cruiser, while two or three men steady the car and push it back up onto the shallow beach, no sign of the girl.

When they open the back door the river water rushes out and they find the girl’s body curled up on the floor, lifeless and limp. Cleo is clutching Ballard’s shirt and crying her eyes out, when a bare-kneed, red-eyed, bearded hiker approaches along the Thames-side path (one I’ve walked many times) suddenly grasps the meaning of the scene in front of him, pushes through the crowd, takes the girl, snicks an obstruction out of her throat and pulls forward her tongue, and on one movement, slicks down his beard, covers her nose and mouth in his mouth and breathes out, takes his mouth away, and pushes her diaphragm. She chokes up the water in her lungs, coughs and splutters and her hysterical mothers clutches her, as the hiker clambers to his feet, reclaims his backpack from a nearby couple and walks on along the path while people are still coping with the sudden turnaround in events.

Who was he?

Chapter 17. Dream’s Ransom

The narrator takes part in the filming of a scene from Empire of the Sun on location in a mansion in Sunningdale, fifteen minutes drive from his long-time home in Shepperton. Many of his friends and neighbours in Shepperton have always worked as extras in the films made at the massive studios there, and now, surreally, he finds many of them playing bit parts in a scene from his own boyhood. Is this why he and Miriam chose to live there all those years ago? Did he have a premonition of how are and life would link up? He even meets a bright-eyed twelve-year-old wearing his old school uniform who steps up and brightly says: ‘Hello, I’m you’. It must be the boy Christian Bale who plays him in the Steven Spielberg film version of Empire.

Then (so many of these chapters come in two parts or themes) he and Cleo (who is obviously now his partner) fly to Hollywood to attend the premiere of the film about his boyhood. He has all kinds of mixed feelings.

‘I think the actors felt that I was the odd man out, the only one who wasn’t real. Most of them had been back to Shanghai.’
‘You could have gone with them.’
‘I know, but I hadn’t the nerve. I wasn’t ready to face everything again—I’ve spent my whole life trying to sort it out. This is the right way to go back to Shanghai, inside a film…’

They check into a hotel and drive around Hollywood which, of course, confirms all his fantasies of Americana which he has been besotted by since he was a boy. He is dazzled and bewildered by the forty-foot-high billboards advertising the film version of his own boyhood back at him.

One afternoon Cleo is out shopping when there’s a ring at the room doorbell and a sophisticated lady waltzes in. It is Olga, who was his superior and impoverished nanny all those years ago, back in Shanghai. Now she is married to a rich American ear and nose surgeon (Mr Edward R. Weinstock). She is brisk and businesslike as they review her struggle to survive in wartorn China, he takes her to lunch, back at their apartment she briskly strips him and they make love.

As at other moments in the book, and quite often at moments when he has sex with the various women, you can’t help feeling contrived, just so and pat the patterns he’s making are. It is an artful ending to the book, rounding things out, finally living out the sexual fantasies about his 17-year-old nanny when he had been a pubertal 12-year-old. And he describes it with a bit of gee-whizz Ballard style:

The film of our life rushed backwards through the projector, devouring itself as it hunted for some discarded moment that held the key to our earliest selves.

In the very last scene, a week after the premiere of Empire, Jim and Cleo make their way down to the Pacific at Venice Beach. And as they watch bronzed Californians launch a replica of Thor Heyerdahl’s papyrus ship, Ra, looking at happy people enjoying the free ocean, Jim realises he is healed.

The time of desperate stratagems was over, the car crashes and hallucinogens, the deviant sex ransacked like a library of extreme metaphors. Miriam and all the murdered dead of a world war had made their peace. The happiness I had found had been waiting for me within the modest reach of my own arms, in my children and the women I had loved, and in the friends who had made their own way through the craze years.

It is an immensely satisfying, carefully arranged and moving conclusion to what is probably his best, most wide-ranging, honest and humane book.

CONCLUSION

By the end I suspected that none of these people ever existed (except for his wife and three children, that much is documentary fact) and quite possibly none of these events ever happened (except the car crash exhibition, that much is on the public record.) Apart from those handful of facts, everything else seems just too pat and contrived and perfectly poised to have anything to do with the chaotic sequence of events known as ‘life’.

Anyway, much bigger than the artfulness of its construction, what makes it a really beautiful book, in my opinion, is the breadth of its COMPASSION.

I was in the operating theatre when my wife had our second child and Ballard’s description of assisting at the birth of his daughter is one of the most moving things I’ve read, because of the way it captures complete intimacy between husband and wife.

The portrait of the excitable young woman, Sally, and the sequence of discovering her boyfriend with someone else, then trying to drown herself off the Sussex coast, and then of Ballard rescuing her, bringing her home, bathing and dressing her and then, slowly, making love to her in the stylised way she needs, is full of complexities of compassion and feeling you don’t often read in novels. It is a kind of compromised compassion, a compassion which knows there is something self-serving in its motives but cares and loves nonetheless.

And the on-again, off-again relationship with his best friend and rival and damaged alter ego, David Hunter, this rises to several moments of deep compassion and love.

And it’s worth rereading the passages where Ballard has sex with two prostitutes, one in Canada, one in Brazil, to really process the tenderness which informs his approach. He ends up stroking the small of the back of the hooker in Canada because he discovers she is pregnant and, after their weird Ballardian clinical sex is over, he carries on being interested in her and her life and soothes and strokes her in a companionate, non-sexual way.

And when he goes to the rescue of the stricken old mad lady, Doreen, in David’s asylum, that is a kind of quintessence of compassion, helping the helpless elderly.

In other words, this book contains scenes of horror and atrocity – notably the central event of the young Chinese being garrotted – and it deliberately contains scenes of lucid and detached sexuality which some might find fetishly exciting and some might find cold and repellent…

But, for me, the enduring legacy of the book is an overwhelming feeling of love and compassion, all the more amazing for way these rare plants managed to survive and flourish in a world containing so much violence and atrocity and numbing stimulations and cheap (or expensive) thrills.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

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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

The Scramble for China by Robert Bickers (2011)

Bickers obviously knows a hell of a lot about western intervention in nineteenth-century China – or the story of the Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire 1832-1914, as the book’s sub-title puts it. Unfortunately, he attempts to convey this wealth of information in such a long-winded, round-the-houses manner, choked by a prose style which manages to combine academic jargon and whimsical archaism, that a lot of the time it’s difficult to tease out what he’s on about.

For example, the early chapters open with an unnamed ‘he’ doing something melodramatic and striking, thus creating an arresting opening – but take a page or more getting round to explaining who ‘he’ is, what ‘he’ is doing, where and when and why, thus leaving us in the dark.

They shouldered their way in. At Mr Lindsay’s order, Mr Simpson and Midshipman Stephens put their shoulders against the barred entrance to the Daotai’s quarters and heaved, twice. (Opening of chapter two)

Who? Where? When? Why? Patience, grasshopper. All will be revealed… eventually.

Was it a dream? Were his eyes deceiving him? He pressed forward through the crowd, the report goes, to get a better sight of the strangers, and “immediately began rubbing his eyes”. (Opening of chapter three)

Who? Where etc. Wait. Wait and see. Wait quite a while, in fact, for Bickers to make himself clear.

These teasing anecdotes, once finally explained, themselves take a while to be placed in the wider historical moment, which Bickers tends to explain both repetitively and obscurely. Quite regularly I didn’t know who he was referring to or when because the narrative jumped unpredictably between one set of characters and another, and (very frequently) back and forward over time. The only really consistent thing about his approach is his use of colourless academic phraseology and his scorn for the no-good imperialising westerners.

At first sight there appears to be a good deal of ‘background colour’ – the third chapter prides itself on going into great detail about the role of theatre and opera in Chinese society, from the professional heights of Peking Opera to the most amateur of local productions. Unfortunately, a lot of these purple passages, when you really look at them, merely state the obvious.

To give an example, the ‘he’ described in the opening of chapter three turns out to be a Chinese bystander who’s heard about two Europeans who have arrived out of the blue at Shanghai in – well, the date is lost in the yards of verbiage, I genuinely couldn’t figure it out – and who have blundered into a public opera production. This is Bickers’ cue to write pages about the Chinese opera and theatre tradition. Sounds fascinating, right? Alas, these pages are written thus:

But what was being staged depended on the occasion, and who was paying – the temple, a guild or a private patron. We cannot know, but we do know that the temple and the gathering so rudely interrupted by these bumptious foreign travellers were part of the fabric of Shanghai life and culture, in which were tightly interwoven the sojourning communities of commercial China, men from afar, whose trading activities were a key component of its wealth and importance. (p.59)

This one long sentence informs us that this big temple in Shanghai was part of Shanghai life and culture. Golly. Communities of sojourners (sojourner = ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’) were – in case you hadn’t twigged – ‘men from afar’. OK. And that the trading activities of travelling merchants ‘were a key component of [Shanghai’s] wealth and importance’. ‘Tightly interwoven’ sounds impressive, doesn’t it? What does it mean, though?

I.e. when you take this grand-sounding sentence to pieces, it doesn’t tell you anything that wasn’t already fairly obvious. This is true for thousands of passages throughout the book: sound great, don’t tell you a thing.

Obscurity 

I’ve gone back and reread the opening pages of chapter three, twice, and I genuinely cannot actually work out when the action quoted above is taking place. You have to wait until three pages into the chapter before there is any reference to an actual date, and then it’s to two dates at once, one or both of which may refer back to a scene described in the previous chapter (I think), a reference which, in turn, required me to go back and double-check those dates.

In other words, this book requires quite a lot of double-checking and cross-referencing just to figure out when the thing is happening. Here’s the date reference I’m talking about:

Understanding what they were congregating for on this dreary October day in 1835 and had been watching on that wet June morning in 1832, and why at a temple, will help us develop a fuller picture of the China that first Lindsay and Gütlzaff, and then Medhurst and Stevens, were so intent on interrupting with their presence. (p.53)

This is what I mean by a round-the-houses manner. The opening of chapter three is deliberately obscure and teasing but… becomes no clearer as it goes on, in fact becomes in many ways more obscure and confusing as it goes on. All that really comes over is Bickers’s anti-British attitude (‘so intent on interrupting’) which is, indeed, the central thread of his account.

All this makes for a very frustrating read. Obviously Bickers knows masses about this subject – it is a tragedy for us readers that he can’t set it down in a straightforward, understandable manner.


The sound of his own voice

Complementing the obscure structuring of the book is the convoluted prose style.

1) Long paragraphs Bickers’ paragraphs routinely last an entire page and often longer, so on opening the book anywhere the reader is faced with a blank wall of words, with no way of breaking the text down into smaller, manageable units of meaning. I continually found myself losing the drift of a 2-page long paragraph, my eyes glazing over, suddenly snapping out of it and then having to go right back to the start to figure out what was happening.

2) Long sentences These mammoth paragraphs are indicative of the book’s general long-windedness. Bickers is reluctant to write a simple declarative sentence. He prefers long, swelling periods, dotted with commas to indicate the proliferation of subordinate clauses and – if possible – the insertion of one or two additional facts in parentheses, to make them as ornate and rhetorically over-wrought as possible.

You know those suitcases which are so over-stuffed you have to sit on them to try and get them closed? Bickers’ sentences are like that. And is this over-stuffing done in the name of presenting the facts clearly? Alas, no. Nine times out of ten it is to achieve an effect of style, a rhetorical repetition of phrases or artful alliteration, the deployment of irony or sarcasm – all techniques which are more suitable to a creative writer than to a historian.

And so, yet again, the Tianhou temple at Shanghai played host to parley, and the crude theatrics of private diplomacy, as Medhurst in particular stood, or rather aimed to sit, on his dignity as yet higher officials, the Customs superintendent (with a foreign cloak, he noted) and the district magistrate, came along in turn to sort things out, and found the foreign intruders rudely rebuffing the requirements of propriety when meeting officials of the great Qing. (p.52)

Note the attempts at humour – ‘or rather aimed to sit’. Note the insertion of a parenthesis, which itself contains two grammatical parts ‘(with a foreign cloak, he noted)’. Note the fondness for alliteration, for the sound of his own style – ‘rudely rebuffing the requirements’. Note that rather than describing or explaining the attitudes of the participants, Bickers prefers to convey them through irony verging on sarcasm – ‘the great Qing’.

Basically, this is a historian trying to write like a novelist.

3) Old fashioned Ironically for someone who is so determined to take a loftily modern, politically correct point of view of the old British Empire, Bickers’ prose, as well as being convoluted to the point of incomprehension, is also addicted to very old-fashioned locutions and vocabulary. Since I often couldn’t work out what he was on about, I found myself drawn to collecting his oddities and archaisms (= ‘a thing that is very old or old-fashioned, especially an archaic word or style of language’):

  • History was ever a public act, but it was also ever a private passion. (p.16)

Leaving aside the fact that this grand sounding period means less the more you think about it, there is the phrasing to savour – ‘ever’ to mean ‘always’? Really? In 1817 certainly. In 1917 maybe. But in 2017? Reading so many Victorian journals, tracts, articles has obviously infected Bickers’ style. But this is far from being a one-off oddity:

  • Lindsay was ever deadly serious, of course, and Medhurst too. (p.75)
  • There were private interactions, too, as there had ever been. (p.224)
  • Music was ever also a private pleasure, a private relief, a source of succour. (p.228)
  • Such confidence in the foreign ability to know China better than the Chinese themselves was to be oft rehearsed. (p.39). ‘Oft’?
  • All understood the law, he averred… (p.41) ‘Averred’?
  • All this fury and posture came to nought. (p.46)
  • The bells in Macao were quieted at the request of his physicians, but it all proved to no avail. (p.46)
  • Emigrants from Fujian, who had long sojourned in the city… (p.54)
  • The colonial consolidation and expansion of the emperor’s predecessors was largely foresworn… (p.66)
  • The Qing could but capitulate… (p.324)

Odd that Bickers is so loftily dismissive of the old imperialist bullies when he himself sounds so like a mutton-chopped lawyer out of Dickens:

  • The tension among the Company men in China persisted thereafter… (p.25)
  • … they aimed to get their complaints heard elsewhere along the coast and transmitted thereby to Peking… (p.26)
  • Scholars have begun in recent decades to look beyond the rhetoric of some schools of Chinese statecraft, particularly insofar as it articulated hostility to commerce.. (p.62)
  • Thereafter he held an intendant post in Zhejiang… (p.72)
  • Charles Elliott, by now the British superintendent of trade, rushed to Canton from Macao in cocked-hatted full dress uniform, evading the blockade and thereby deliberately adding himself to the hostaged fray. (p.78) ‘The hostaged fray’?
  • There were ‘mixed feelings’ from The Times, at the conclusion of a ‘miserable war’, and the ‘ill-gotten gains’ therefrom. (p.84)
  • Jardines had fourteen receiving ships by 1845, and usually ten thereafter… (p.92)
  • Like most of the early missionary community in China, he secured a post with the official British establishment during the war, and turned it into a secure position thereafter… (p.94)
  • In this way they rationalised their operations somewhat. (p.106)
  • Telegraph lines snaked their way thereafter to China. (p.164)
  • [The convicted murderer John Buckley] went quietly to his death, the site guarded by twenty-four policemen in case an attempt was made to rescue him, and he was not thereafter missed. (p.180)
  • For almost a quarter of a century thereafter the firm grew and diversified… (p.185)
  • Thomas Hanbury and his ilk were wedded to their interests in the Settlement at Shanghai… (p.189)
  • At least in Britain there was a Public Records Office, and in principle archives were transferred to public access, but nothing of that like existed in China. (p.376) — I don’t think I’ve ever read ‘like’ being used in this way before. ‘…nothing of that like…’ Surely you or I would write ‘but nothing like that existed in China’, but where would be the fun in that?

Alliteration Alliteration self evidently promotes sound and rhetoric over factual content and meaning.

  • Lindsay instantly resumed a pointed game of protocol and precedence. (p.21)
  • Their later frantic, frequent queries… (p.27)
  • It complained that the authorities in Canton were corrupt, capricious and cruel (p.28).
  • All wanted friendly and fruitful relations… (p.41)
  • They left that afternoon with a promise that a polite and properly formal response to their petition would follow. (p.41)
  • Instead they indulged in recondite debates about terms and texts. (p.73)
  • [Nathan Dunn’s exhibition of chonoiserie in London in December 1841] inspired catcalls and copycats… (p.88)
  • Such consular conveniences, compounded by confusions… (p.107)
  • [The Taiping rebels] fought fanatically and fiercely. (p.120)
  • … fifteen years’ worth of precedent and practice. (p.155)

Maybe Bickers is modelling himself on the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. In at least one place he does in fact directly quote Gilbert & Sullivan – on page 78 referring to the ‘little list’ being used in negotiations with the Chinese, a phrase which is the focus of a well-known song from their operetta about Japan, The Mikado (1885) (in fact, Bickers likes the jokey reference so much, he makes it again on page 194).

Hendiadys and pairing Why use one word when you can use two – ideally alliterating or rhyming – to deliver that knockout rhetorical punch?

  • Confident, nonetheless, they memorialised now more readily and steadily. (p.370)
  • … ongoing debates and disagreements… (p.374)

Fancy-ancy just for the fun of playing with words:

  • These shows… brought curious orientals to accompany the oriental curiosities on display in London. (p.89)
  • As successive reports made their way back to Britain, and as the lobbyists worked their words… (p.80)
  • But abate it they could not, or abate it they would not… (p.113)
  • Nearly all foreigners could or would still only talk a pidgin English… (p.114)
  • The act of uprising – daring to stand and daring to fight… (p.120)
  • But he could not, or would not, pay them. (p.126)
  • Parkes had grown up as British China grew up. He had grown with conflict and he had grown accustomed to conflict. China was his adult life, his only life… (p.138)
  • The men were there to fight and fought there well. (p.162)
  • So Robert Hart had had his fill of life in the foothills of the China apocalypse, had seen how vacuum would follow and violence ensure if the Qing could not hold… (p.196)
  • This new Peking, the object of romantic contemplation, suggested a China that might be appreciated rather than caricatured, and savoured rather than savaged. (p.221)

Singular nouns or nouns without an article This a real addiction of Bickers’ style, it occurs throughout on every page and gives the prose a stilted, hieratic feel:

  • [Lindsay] was ready to perceive slight and note omission… (p.22)
  • Now Lindsay was sailing north without invitation… (p.24)
  • … he and his retinue had been denied audience… (p.24)

Shouldn’t that be, ‘denied an audience’? It’s not wrong, it’s just that denying many of these nouns an article turns them from specific instances or events into lofty-sounding abstractions – makes them and the sentences they appear in just that wafer-thin bit more stilted and precious than they need be. More portentous and pretentious, to adopt Bickers’ own manner.

  • The predictable regularity of the internationalised trading world was periodically upset, as in any port city, by human failing and misadventure… (36)
  • They knew so well many of the possibilities that lay beyond their reach by imperial order, and engaged in shrewd estimate and wild conjecture… (p.65)
  • Nor was [the emperor Daoguang] the despised feudal archaism of the Marxist history of communist-era China, which castigated the failures of the late-Qing monarchs to combat imperialism’s assault. (p.67)
  • Those Napier-ordered bombardments of the Canton forts were simply ‘minnows’ compared with the just desserts of Chinese obstruction and insult that were to be meted out by British warships. (p.77)
  • The British helped inform this comedy of error. (p.86)

As with the other elements of Bickers’ style it gives the impression of acuity and insight without providing any actual information. The proliferation of these rhetorical tricks explains why you can read whole page-long paragraphs, arrive exhausted at the end, and then wonder why you don’t appear to have learned or remembered anything.

  • The Canton RegisterCanton Courier, and the more ambitious and scholarly Chinese Repository, edited by Elijah Bridgman, the first American missionary to China, all conveyed up-to-date news, description and opinion across the seas. (p.36) Why not descriptions?
  • Every contact with Chinese officials was an occasion for slight. (p.44)
  • It administered each in the way which seemed best, or most pragmatic at the time, and given considerations of resource and capacity. (p.69) Why not ‘resources‘?
  • Bouts of fighting were interspersed with parleys and negotiations, and with defence of insecure occupations of Chinese islands… (p.81) Why not ‘the defence’?
  • Stronger still would be the accumulated body of printed and private report… (p.89)
  • … the consequent legal haziness of their operations generated much correspondence and dispute. (p.93)
  • But domestic crisis was no small matter when rumour swept around… (p.114)
  • If stray shots passed over there would be formal complaint and stern rebuke. (p.127)
  • European initiative needed Chinese resource. (p.156)
  • The Customs delivered increasing resource as foreign trade grew… (p.198)
  • The development of official banks of information and report by consul and commissioner… (p.218)

So Used as an emphasiser, and in an unusual position in the word order, in a very old-fashioned way:

  • Indeed it will help if we understand more about the temple itself, which so stood out on the Shanghai waterfront close by the Customs House and under the highest point on the city wall, and which so stands out in these two landmark accounts of foreign visits to the city…This way we can better understand the China of the early 1830s outside the narrow confines of the factories, the roads, Macao, that narrow semi-foreignised sliver of the Canton delta that so overfills accounts of the early Sino-foreign encounters. (p.53)

Indeed, it would have been better for the gentle reader of these rhetorical tricks which so embellish and so adorn the purple prose of this grandiloquent historianographer, if his exuberant verbosity had been somewhat reined in and replaced with useful and understandable factual content.

Presage Bickers likes this word.

  • The foreign traders, all of them, were to be held hostage for the drug, without fresh food, without their servants, worried that the commissioner’s little list… presaged individual arrests and possibly torture. (p.78)
  • The sight of the burning buildings… presaged some more years of violent Canton problems. (p.101)
  • All such minor disturbances of men and women could presage consular grief. (p.114)
  • An estimated 7 million people were affected by the floods and dyke-failures that presaged the great change [of the course of the Yellow River in 1851] (p.136)
  • This turn to antique China also presaged the opening of another front in the foreign campaign. (p.221)
  • Margary’s slaughter presaged another round in China’s despoliation… (p.260)
  • The new blockade was to presage a new phase in the campaign… (p.296)

The use of ‘presage’ is typical of Bickers’s preference for the orotund and bombastic as opposed to the plain and simple.

Inversions of normal sentence order which makes sentences sometimes difficult to understand.

  • Quickly to the Company’s aid came instead other parties and volunteers… (p.26)
  • What commercial bliss it was that hot Canton spring… (p.78)
  • Rare it was that ‘the preacher commences and ends his discourse without a single intervention’. (p.111)
  • Always in Peking, I think, someone will in fact have heard him. Always someone will have heard the young foreigner belting out song in the capital’s dry air. (p.229)
  • Always there were exceptions… (p.249)
  • Fearful too were Chinese residents and local authorities. (p.349)

Incomprehensible In fact the combination of all the above tricks and jackanapary makes some sentences simply incomprehensible.

  • And what was eventually left over, why, when the hullaballoo was over, and when Lin’s officers had spent three weeks in April and May overseeing the smashing of the balls of opium and their flushing out to sea at Humen, close by the Linten anchorage, then what a market there was for it, and what prices it could now fetch discreetly, much more discreetly, sold along the coast to friends disappointed by the diversion of the spring stock. (p.79)
  • Along the coast with the British Cantonese went nonetheless, or followed soon after. (p.101)
  • Gods of ignorance and bafflement reigned over the China theatre. (p.397)

Sojourners sojourning As mentioned above, a sojourner is ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’. Lots of westerners came out to newly-opened-up China to make a quick fortune then go home; they are pretty obviously ‘sojourners’, if you choose to use this antique term. But lots of Chinese, both native and immigrants from the south-east Asian diaspora, also came to ‘sojourn’ in the new Crown colonies Britain had wrested from China. Hence there was a whole lot of sojourning going on, and the text doesn’t let us forget it:

  • Sojourners and settlers prefer familiarity to adaptation… (p.62)
  • [The Qing empire] was well used to dealing with sojourners from outside its formal domain… (p.69)
  • Cantonese migrants and sojourners were quick to see additional value in association with the British… (p.102)
  • Robert Fortune’s second sojourn in China… (p.105)
  • They [westerners] were sojourners, mostly… Their sojourns were not short. (p.117)
  • Shanghai itself fell on 7 September 1853 to a sojourner coup. (p.125)
  • The sojourner was mentally relocating, settling in, his sense of where he formally belonged shifting. (p.168)

Personification

  • Arrogant opium swaggered its way along to the newly opened ports. (p.92)

Not traditional history writing, is it?

Tired and jaded

It is an oddity of this book that Bickers’ tone is tired and jaded with the whole western adventure in China before it has even started. Very early on he starts using phrases like ‘once again’ and ‘yet again’, when in fact what he’s describing is happening for the first time. This quickly conveys to the reader that Bickers is frightfully bored with the oh-so-predictable cultural misunderstandings or western bullying or the absurd scenes of everyone standing on their dignity which he depicts.

  • At Shanghai as at Hong Kong, and in every foreign community, such sentiments… were to be expressed again and again… (p.134)
  • Again it all began in Canton… (p.136)
  • And here we are again at the closed gates of the city and at the closed door of the yamen… (p.146)
  • It was the old story, of China coast savviness about Chinese duplicity… (p.213)

This tone conveys the regrettable sense that Bickers feels blasé and superior to the events he’s describing and the poor saps enacting them. If only the human race had given Bickers something a bit more interesting and novel to write about! There’s a striking passage which introduces the First Opium War where he tells us how awfully over-familiar the whole thing is:

The course of events that followed are well known. How Lin Zexu was sent as a special commissioner to investigate the problem in Canton and to put a stop to the trade, how he made his way overland to the city and set about making his mark: all of this has been much narrated. (p.77)

Is it well known, though? Has it been much narrated? Do you know all about Lin Zhu and his overland trek and what happened next? I certainly didn’t. In fact, that’s why I’m reading a book about the scramble for China, precisely to learn about this history, not to be patronisingly told that I ought to know all about it all already.

This passage (there are plenty more in the same vein) crystallised my feeling that Bickers is far too close to his subject matter and makes a kind of rookie error in assuming that his readers share his specialised knowledge and are all as blasé and bored by it as he is.

But many of us have barely heard any of this story before and it is his responsibility to tell it to us. Alas, Bickers is so over-familiar with events that he has to resort to fancy prose and attitudinising to keep his own interest up. I, on the other hand, was hoping for a simple, reliable and clearly written account of the events of these hundred years in China.

Alas, I didn’t get it here. Bickers’ account of the First Opium War is confusing, but not as confusing and partial as his account of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) on pages 118 to…. well… his account just fizzles out somewhere ten pages later – which I was particularly looking forward to. As if determined to confuse, he begins his account of the Taiping Rebellion, one of the most epic events in world history, in mid-chapter, after some pages which give the impression they are going to be a description of the cosy lives of the China British. He introduces this vast historical subject with these words:

But then enter the younger brother of Jesus Christ who came to discomfort all their lives… (p.118)

If you didn’t know that the leader of the Taiping Rebellion was a religious visionary who really did think he was the brother of Christ, this opening would be incomprehensible. In fact, Bickers doesn’t give an account of the overall Taiping Rebellion at all – he is only interested in it insofar as a) it demonstrates and was arguably caused by, the destabilising presence of Europeans on China’s coasts and b) it impacted the British settlements at Canton and at newly colonised Shanghai (where, for example, in 1853, the British – from the protection of their walled settlement – could watch pitched battles between the Taiping army and the imperial Qing forces).

The accounts of the Taiping Rebellion in the books by John Keay and Jonathan Fenby are both much clearer and much more penetrating than in Bickers. These two historians clearly explain the causes and consequences of this truly epic conflict, possibly the largest civil war in all human history, anywhere, a titanic devastation which led to the loss of as many as 20 million Chinese lives, maybe more.

The same frivolous and off-hand approach characterises Bickers’s treatment of the contemporaneous but distinct Nian Rebellion (1851-68), given only a brief page here (p.135), fleetingly explained but not analysed in any depth.

The brief mention of the Crimean War (on pages 134 and 135) neither explains that conflict nor its geopolitical ramifications for the European powers in China. Bickers briefly points out that the war had a distinct Pacific element – a fascinating idea I’d never come across before – but then frustratingly drops the subject completely. This feels like a massive and fascinating topic completely ignored. So disappointing. I bought this book precisely to understand the geo-political implications and context and motives for the sequence of China-oriented wars of the nineteenth century, and that turns out to be the very last thing on Bickers’ mind.

This confusing melange of super-brief references to these huge and super-important wars then segues abruptly and, as usual, in a very offhand way, into a typically arse-over-tit account of the Second Opium War (1856-60).

So the foreigners placed their faith in the Qing, once they had warred with them, beaten them, and humiliated them. Again, it all began in Canton. (p.136)

Note the tired and jaded tone as he casually begins a confusing account which spools onto page 150, with a vivid but hard-to-follow explanation for the (scandalous) British burning of the Emperor’ Summer House. OK. But in the 14 or so pages which cover it, Bickers nowhere mentions that he is describing the Second Opium War – you have to know that already. He is so close to, and over-familiar with, his subject, he just assumes that we all know about this stuff already. But we don’t. That’s why we bought your bloody book in the first place.

Towards the end I was genuinely appalled when the only mention he makes of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the first war in modern times in which a non-European nation (Japan) thrashed a European one (Russia) is the following. (He’s explaining how, after the Boxer Rebellion was finally quelled, the European nations demanded reparations but, for the most part, didn’t seek to acquire new territory. Apart from Russia):

Russia failed to conform, though, and hung on in Manchuria with 200,000 troops. So the British and the Japanese opened up a new world of international politics by entering into a formal alliance in 1902, breaking with decades of British practice, and in 1904-5 the Japanese smashed Russian forces in Manchuria and Siberia, shocking the European world, and offering new hope for the colonised and threatened. (p.349)

The Russo-Japanese War doesn’t even get a sentence of its own, but is shoehorned into the second half of a sentence which starts in 1902 and ends in 1905. Wow.

The republican revolution which finally overthrew the Qing Dynasty – and ended 3,000 years of rule by emperors – in October 1911, is dealt with – including the accident which sparked it, the spread of revolt, the seizure of power by Sun Yat-Sen, the abdication of the emperor, and the handing over of power to general Yuan Shikai – this seismic event is dealt with in 10 sentences – half a page – and not returned to.

Thus does Bickers leap over hugely important geopolitical, strategic and military events in order to get back to lambasting western businessmen living in sin with their Chinese mistresses, making fortunes from the opium trade and lobbying for more access to Chinese markets.

This is a sociological essay about the British in China, not a history.

Academic jargon

By this stage the reader has realised that Bickers isn’t interested in giving a chronological account of what happened during China’s century of humiliation; he isn’t interested in analysing or explaining the complex geopolitics of a weakened China caught between coastal invaders like the British and, towards the end of the period, the Japanese – all overshadowed by the ever-present threat from the land-grabbing Russian empire in the west and north.

He isn’t even very interested in any of the other European nations – the French and Americans get only a few walk-on parts, while the Portuguese, Dutch or Germans are hardly mentioned at all.

Instead, what becomes clearer and clearer is that Bickers thinks he is giving a kind of cultural history of the British in China.

That’s a fine ambition but he doesn’t live up to it. There is nothing at all in the book about, say, Chinese art or poetry, nothing. What there is, is repeated references to the way the Chinese or British performed as if on a stage with each other, or the way Chinese artefacts (and people) were shipped off to London to be put on display in various public shows and the big European expositions of the later Victorian era, or the way the colonisers engaged in practices and policed sites and shaped public space, and so on. Instead of interesting stuff about Chinese culture, what Bickers gives us is a lot of Eurocentric academic jargon.

Over the past forty years or so, the mind-set and terminology of (mostly French) modern literary theory/history/sociology pioneered in the 1960s and 70s by, say, Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault, has congealed to form a higher entity called just Theory – an attitude and set of jargon which has spread out to infect study of all the humanities subjects at university.

I’m extremely familiar with this all-purpose semi-sociological terminology from the many art exhibitions I go to, where contemporary artists no longer make ‘art works’ – they engage with issues of gender and sexuality, or money and class or whatever, carrying forward projects which use strategies of this, that and the other, which taken together amount to their practice. What used to be called ‘works of art’ are now more often than not the sites of their engagement with some issue or other, where the artists subvert conventional narratives of whatever or challenge this, that or the other norm or convention.

This all-purpose academic jargon has a number of purposes. Firstly, like academic jargon down the ages, from the ancient world through the Middle Ages – it makes the author sound clever. Secondly, it makes it all sound very serious: no longer painting a picture or developing a photo, an artist is now engaged in their practice – like a serious professional, like an architect or a GP. Thirdly, it is all very active – none of that old bourgeois standing around in front of an easel, an artist now engages with, subverts, challenges and questions and interrogates and a whole load of other action words. All very exciting and edgy.

At the same time many of the words have a very clinical and scientific feel: not only the artist, but especially the art critic, is no longer subject to the wishy-washy whims of their bourgeois imagination, but gives the impression of applying rigorous scientific procedures: artists have ‘projects’ and ‘practices’ which are enacted in ‘sites’ and ‘spaces’. Anything like a sculpture or installation reorientates the ‘space’ around it, maybe reorders ‘spatial hierarchies’, probably ‘challenges’ accepted ‘narratives’ or what a work of art can be, and so on.

Another feature of Theory Language is that a little of it goes a long way: these terms have become remarkably all-purpose: you can apply them to almost any human activity and come out sounding serious, weighty and profound.

The only snag is that – although this kind of language, used sparingly, conveys a sense of power and thrust and importance and intellectual force,

a) it doesn’t, on closer examination, really tell you anything at all
b) used too much, it quickly turns into a vacuous jargon of empty slogans – just as the public very quickly got sick of Theresa May telling us she represented ‘strong and stable leadership’ (and turned out to represent the opposite) so an artist, or curator, or critic, or historian who goes on and on about ‘practice’ and ‘projects’ and ‘sites’ and ‘narratives’ in an effort to sound meaningful and scientific and precise – runs the risk of ending up like a cracked record playing the same meaningless jargon over and over again; far from subverting anything, this kind of jargon ends up reinforcing existing conventions about art writing. In fact, it is the new set of conventions.

Examples of academic jargon

Display is an important idea for Bickers. European merchants built big houses – he takes it as an example of ‘display’. They hosted lavishes dinner – more ‘display’. Chinese objects were sent back to London – where they were put on ‘display’. As if grouping these pretty everyday activities under a semi-scientific singular noun gives us all a special insight into human activity, grouping them all together somehow explains… something.

  • China was in this way [exhibitions of China bric-a-brac in London in the 1840s] being normalised as an object for such display and ethnographic and other curiosity. (p.89)
  • Such displaydisplay at table, architectural display – announced probity and confidence (to each other, to Chinese merchants), but it also spoke of vulgarity and extravagance. (p.99)
  • Admiration for the appearance of the Sikhs, the ‘colour’ they were felt and said to have brought to China, and to British display in China… (p.163)
  • What became the routine display of China at such forums was a key strand in the project that Hart was leading. (p.204)

Engage and engagement At a recent internet conference I attended there was a list of banned words; if you mentioned one you had to contribute to the swear box (all money coughed up was sent to a charity for refugees). ‘Engage’ and ‘engagement’ were top of the list. Why? Because they means everything and nothing; because they are empty buzzwords.

  • Farmers engaged in handicraft production. (p.64)
  • The ordered business of its routine engagement with the world at the treaty ports elsewhere was able to continue… (p.352)

Enterprises and projects

the British Empire didn’t carry out strategies or policies, apparently. It engaged in projects and enterprises.

  • At the heart of the official British China enterprise… (p.206)
  • The foreign China enterprise at Shanghai was actually truly a real-estate imperialism… (p.222)
  • They were men of commerce and outside what was formally recognised as British empire, and their enterprise was multi-national and often makeshift. They had no imperial project. (p.382)

Sites and spaces Both make pretty run-of-the-mill places sound important and exciting, and make it sound as if you’re saying something especially perceptive and insightful about them.

  • This book explores the world which created that final photograph and its many sites and fields of action. (p.14)
  • A popular temple was also a commercial and economic site… They were embedded in the daily public space of the city. (p.16)
  • The rural landscape was pocked with market sites. (p.65) — It is so much more emphatic and intellectually demanding than simply writing ‘markets’ or ‘market places’.
  • [Just outside harbour boundaries, opium] was stored, and there were established new sites for conflict and the low-level disorderliness that filled the consulate letter books. (p.93)
  • The new ports were like many of the other sites of power around the Indian Ocean. (p.105)
  • As the new roads and buildings grew up in the treaty ports they were to acquire new memorials, and new sites for commemoration and celebration. (p.112)
  • It might seem odd that we can find so much insistent quiet emphasis on the symbolic ordering of foreign space [the British insisted on having a grand ex-palace to be their legation in Beijing]. Partly this was a response to understandings of Chinese conceptions, a breaking out of spaces and sites allotted them for reasons they interpreted (rightly sometimes) as intentionally demeaning. But they had their own such practices already… (p.206)
  • Foreign observers chuckled at Chinese geomancy, at fengshui, even as they fashioned symbolic landscapes themselves, sacralising space, creating sites for pilgrimage, reflection and remembrance. (p.207)

In this last example Bickers is describing how the British built graveyards wherever they settled. Note how he goes out of his way to ridicule the British who, he claims, chuckled at Chinese geomancy but – at least according to Bickers’ confidently post-imperialist view – were themselves every bit as superstitious and irrational in their treatment of ‘space’ – i.e. building cemeteries. Ha ha ha, silly old British.

But as with almost everything Bickers writes, a moment’s reflection makes you question this casual criticism and superiority: geomancy or fengshui are to some extent optional practices; organising the hygienic and orderly burial of the dead are rather more of a necessity. But – and here’s my point – Bickers has conceived and written this sentence not to make a factual statement – but to score politically correct points over ‘the foreigners’.

  • Peking, resolutely, was different to all the other sites of the foreign presence, different in scale, meanings, history, experience and climate. (p.215)
  • the Inspectorate General was the site in time of an entirely novel private experiment of Hart’s. (p.227)
  • There were of course other sites of jubilee. (p.309)
  • China long remained a site of foreign male opportunity. (p.311)
  • Homes, memoirs show, now became sites for the assertion of the supremacy of the European woman over her servants… (p.313)
  • Real Chinatowns became fictionalised nests of opium dens and sites of the despoliation of white girls by Chinese men. (p.364)

Space

  • [Western music] served to mark space in new ways. (p.228)
  • So at Shanghai they ordered space, responding as quickly as they were able to the breathtaking speed with which opportunities were seized, innovations latched onto, loopholes explored. They also ordered Chinese use of public space, imposing new norms of behaviour, turning urination into a minor criminal category. They also attempted to order aspects of private space: the gambling house, the brothel, the household. (p.224)

On reflection, where Bickers writes ‘space’ he really means ‘behaviour – but ‘space’ sounds more abstract, intellectual and scientific. And, in his usual hurry to denigrate Europeans and the British at every turn, he turns the imposition of regulations like banning people pissing in the street into a bad thing. Maybe we should return to the days of men randomly urinating in the street? Similarly, maybe gambling houses and brothels shouldn’t have been regulated. Naughty, naughty Europeans with their silly imperialising laws.

Practice A super-useful word which can be applied to almost any human activity to make yourself sound impressively intellectual. For example, my postman for the most part engages in letter-delivery activities but has recently expanded his practice to encompass the manual transmission of parcels in the course of which he transitions from the public space of the pavement, governed by one code of conduct, to the private space of my porch, which has become a site for intrapersonal exchange and dialogue i.e. we have a bit of a chat whenever he knocks on the door to deliver a parcel.

Used in this pretentious way ‘practice’ has become a buzzword which lends your text the authority and the spurious pseudo-scientific precision of an anthropologist or ethnographer or sociologist. But like so many of these terms, it mostly just dresses up banality and the bleeding obvious.

  • Officials often had little time intellectually for popular religious practice. (p.61)
  • Buddhist in origin, but adopted far beyond Buddhist practices, [the festival] involved opera performances, processions and bonfires… (p.61)
  • But that containment [of foreign traders by the Chinese] was too restrictive, too contrary to emerging European interests and practices… (p.157)
  • As the concessions and settlements merged spatially with the rest of the developing cities, their autonomous judicial systems and practice routinely returned to deportation as a legal punishment. (p.160)
  • It was a queer affair, the extension of Tongzhi restoration practice to overseas diplomacy… Burlingame was carefully and explicitly instructed not to follow practices which might prompt reciprocal demands on Peking.. (p.212)
  • There were descriptions and assessments too of Chinese practice. (p.281)
  • North China farmers knew that into their brittle world had come new forces, with alien ideas and practices… (p.341)
  • And the practices of the new combined forces of Boxers, the Yihequan, ‘Boxers united in righteousness’, gave them mastery over foreign things… (p.342)
  • Foreign office archives practice was in theory quite clear. (p.375)

Lovely sentence this last one, don’t you think?

Network Not found so much in other Theory-mongers, this word makes you sound like you’re all across modern technology and the internet and the groovy, cool, multi-connected world.

  • [The Taiping Rebellion] was a revolt informed by the new intellectual currents from over the oceans which were at work in Chinese cities and in the networks of people, goods and ideas that flowed through them… (p.120)
  • The swiftness of the incorporation after 1860 of the new sites of treaty port China into these far wider networks shows just how interconnected it already was. (p.156)
  • Globalisation, international migration, the growth of British and other European empires and the networks that cut across and through them, all had a bearing on developments in China. (p.156)
  • China was already deeply embedded in new-fashioned networks… (p.157)
  • So the Inspectorate general became the centre of its own network of stations, as well as a node in wider networks – regional meteorology, the international round of display and representation… (p.204)
  • The growing presence, and relative ease of transmission of goods and people, locked China more and more closely into knowledge networks, not least geographical and scientific ones. (p.165)
  • By 24 October 1860, when allied troops paraded into the heart of the imperial capital escorting Elgin and Gros, two bands in the vanguard heralding their intrusion and the imminent treaty ceremony, China was already being fashioned steadily into new networks – of communications, of people, of ideas. (p.157)

‘New networks of communications, of people, of ideas’ – this is vacuous modern corporate jargon: it could be an excerpt from the press release for any big company, bank or government department – it has that hollow corporate ring, impressive, vibrant-sounding and absolutely empty of meaning.

Scripts and performance This is another classic piece of sociological jargon in which people are depicted as hollow puppets helplessly ‘performing’ ‘scripts’, putting on performances – which they called living and making decisions but which we – everso wise Posterity – can now see as ritualised and formulaic ‘performances’:

  • The China script for the performance of British power and identity in the treaty ports was borrowed from the Subcontinent. (p.162)
  • Many missionaries played at the local level the China game of compensation for injury and damage, property restitution and repair, and symbolic gesture – judgement and proclamation set in stone, or transfer of communally important sites as punishment… Some did so to show how powerful Church and mission were, how actively they could help; to reassure and protect existing converts, and to tempt others. Such action could also provide a stage for the rehearsal of the national honour script, the dignity of the nation residing in the person of the missionary and his flock. (p.249)
  • But as 3,000 troops and labourers disembarked at Langqiao Bay in May 1874, a more routine script was being rehearsed… (p.254)
  • His death was incorporated into the same empire script that he rehearsed as he travelled… (p.260)
  • The limits of this private enterprise imperialism, of the sweaty plans of Bland and his ilk were reached on the early Sunday of of 28 July 1913, when Bruce and his band blundered noisily into sleepy Zhabei, and nobody met them to play their scripted part in the local drama of Settlement expansion. (p.369)

Transgressions and subverting and challenging and interrogating etc. Sounds so exciting and edgy and revolutionary. But is all too often applied to really boring and obvious descriptions in an effort to jazz them up.

  • As guardians of order and peace they saw such large gatherings… as sites of transgressions of moral order. (p.61)

What he means is that prostitutes often plied their trade at big Chinese festivals. Who’d have thought? Pretty transgressive, eh?

Actually, there isn’t as much transgression here as I find in the commentary of art galleries; and only one or two mentions of another favourite of Literary Theory, ‘desire’, used as a kind of bland, all-purpose, catch-all term for sex in the widest sense. Although there are quite a few references to brothels and prostitutes – mainly, of course, pointing out how brothels and prostitutes followed western land grabs and settlements, thus proving what racist hypocrites Europeans were. Oh, and many of them took Chinese mistresses, as well. How vile and disgusting, only white men have ever taken mistresses, and only in China.

Prose like concrete

The direction of Bickers thought is always upwards towards sweeping generalisations. Converting a specific argument between a specific Chinese and English into the generic term ‘dispute’, or particular local laws and customs into the generic word ‘practice’, is always to leave the specific and colourful behind in the name of scientific-sounding but in reality vague and generalised concepts. Move in this direction enough and you are left with sentences which are so generalised they could be about anything, anywhere. It just makes long stretches of this book really, really boring.

Always there were exceptions, men and women horrified by this new world of local conflict and dispute that could unfold as people converted. But the mission enterprise was nonetheless mired from the start in such local dispute, at the same time as it was enmeshed with the wider foreign world in China through nationality, affinity, language, marriage, and wider kin networks. (p.249)

It’s like reading concrete. It’s like being stuck in a supermarket car park looking at thousands of shopping trolleys, all the same. Dispute, insult, practice, site, spatial integration, networks of communication, sites of display, imperial spaces, networks of engagement, circuits of empire, colonial display, imperial sites, the China project, the China enterprise, blah blah blah.

I should have been warned off by the reviewer on Amazon who said reading this book was like walking through thickening mud.

Some, such and many Bickers also has a peculiar way with the words ‘there’, ‘some’, ‘such’ and ‘many’: by peculiar I mean that I’ve read thousands of books, paying close attention to their style, and never come across anyone use those words so eccentrically and idiosyncratically. He is fond of ‘fray’ which recurs many times; and ‘odd’.  It is tempting to embark on an analysis of these short, common words for what they reveal about Bickers’ eccentric uses of them – but this review is long enough already.

  • Such permission was certainly given to some… (p.374)
  • Such fear held good there. (p.374)
  • Such memory is the product of hard state work. (p.392)

A simpler soul might write ‘this kind of’ permission or fear or memory – but Bickers is a sucker for rhetorical effects.

Bullying sanctimoniousness

It goes without saying that a modern white, middle-aged English academic will have completely absorbed the political correctness of their university context and so be extremely, comprehensively, sarcastically critical of the white, middle-aged Englishmen of the past. A modern politically correct academic could take no other attitude.

They are all racist imperialist saps; we, dear reader, are by contrast morally unimpeachable and live in an age of complete enlightenment. Thank goodness the modern West which Bickers is a part of doesn’t go around invading other countries and plunging them into decades of chaos and civil war; thank goodness the modern West doesn’t build encampments in foreign countries – Iraq, say, or Afghanistan – protected from angry natives by huge walls inside which the soldiers and civil servants of the occupying forces, blissfully uninterested in the local culture, are provided with all the pleasures of home.

Yes, the modern historian, embedded in this wonderful Western culture, is sooo superior to his great-great-great-great grandparents who did just the same in China or India. In an account of a speech the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury gave in 1898, Bickers makes sure to point out that it was infused with the outdated ideology of social Darwinism, that he spoke ‘complacently’ and that his imperialist audience ‘chortled’.

What’s ironic is that Bickers’ own account is drenched with the cultural ideology of our times – sanctimonious political correctness – and that he himself never loses an opportunity to ‘chortle’ at the inferiority of other people – in this case, our ancestors. Bickers displays exactly the same patronising tone towards people who can’t defend themselves, as he lambasts haughty imperialists for displaying towards their victims.

Bickers laughs at the British merchants and soldiers, the consuls and captains he depicts, for importing the comforts of home, for bringing in English plants and trees, for building Anglican churches, for ordering prints and paintings of reassuringly patriotic subjects to hang on their walls, and even sending for familiar foods, rather than the bewildering local cuisine.

They wanted and recreated the familiar. They wanted their cigar brought, and then their newspaper. So they made themselves at home on the Huangpu, the Min, Gulangyu island, the slopes of Hong Kong, as snug as they could manage, and read weeks-old news about the real world over the ocean in a fug of finest Havana. (p.117)

Silly selfish saps!

And in their insatiably imperialist lust for profit, Bickers points out that some British firms even sold guns and ammunition to the warring sides in the Taiping Rebellion! The horror of those racist imperialist profiteers! Luckily, we now live in a blessed and enlightened age, when the British government would never dream of selling arms and airplanes, guns and implements of torture to Third World regimes, to countries like Saudi Arabia, who use the planes we sell them to bomb civilians in Yemen. Never ever.

— To be perfectly clear: I find a lot of the historiography of the British Empire, generally written by guilty white liberal men who bend over backwards to be politically correct in every way, to be revoltingly smug, superior and sanctimonious. To assume that their responses to the problems those people living in the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s and so on faced – their motivations to travel where the opportunity was, to set up companies, to trade and make money, to seek a living and a career – were all somehow uniquely wicked, and only the British ever did this or displayed imperialistic behaviour – never displayed before or since by any other nation (including the countless Chinese merchants they traded and set up companies with, or the genuinely bestial Japanese Empire) – and to assume that these are all behaviours which we moderns, in our infinite wisdom, have completely outgrown.

In my opinion, every human being is born into struggle – against their biological destiny, their physical flaws, the illnesses and accidents we are all prone to, against the psychological damage of childhood and education, against the cultural and technological limits of their time and position and, above all, the crushing necessity to make a living, to earn a crust, to eat and drink and stay alive.

My opinion is the same as John Locke’s, that we do better to commiserate our common frailty and sinfulness with our fellow humans – to sympathise with other people, to understand their suffering and pain, to help and aid those who are alive, now, today – and to empathise with the tribulations of those who came before us, who struggled through their own challenges.

But people like historians of empire, who appoint themselves judge and jury over the past, who lump the entire population of Britain into one undifferentiated pile labelled IMPERIALISTS so they can sneer and ridicule and belittle our benighted ancestors, well they run the risk of themselves being lumped in with the Britain of our times, being judged by the same strict broad-brush approach which they apply to the past – and found wanting. Was Bickers not alive during the invasion of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, the financial crash of 2008, the Brexit vote or, at its widest, the election of President Trump? In a hundred and fifty years time won’t he be lumped in with this violent, war-starting, financially ruinous era?

And – the most obvious crime of our age – he is living through the destruction of the planet’s life forms and the tipping point of global warming. In a hundred and fifty years time Bickers too – with his flying round the world and globetrotting, a privileged western academic who ‘travelled extensively, visiting many of the haunting sites scattered across China that feature in the book’ (as the blurb puts it) – will be lumped in with the stupid, blinkered generation who arrogantly took it as their prerogative, as their right, as their entitlement, to burn up fossil fuel, to heat up the atmosphere, and to permanently damage the planet – and all in order to write his sarcastic quips about his obscure forebears.

And, if anybody reads books a hundred and fifty years hence, this type of morally superior historian will be judged all the more harshly because they have forfeited the possibility of themselves being forgiven by the unremitting harshness, judgmentalism, superior and supercilious attitude which they apply so flippantly and casually to people who died 150 years ago, and who cannot speak in their own defence. ‘Judge not lest ye be judged,’ as a dead white man said long ago.

Seen from this perspective – of condemning the helpless dead – judgmental histories like Bickers’ are a form of bullying. And when I see any form of bullying happening right in front of me, although I may not like the victim very much, my instinct is to side with the underdog, with the person being subjected to relentless vilification by someone in power over them.

But the relentless patronising of the past is not only morally offensive, it’s also plain dumb. Repeatedly Bickers comes up with the revelation that these businessmen and traders and merchants and bankers were out to make a profit! That merchants and bankers came out from Britain to set up businesses, to trade, and to make money! God, the implication is – how grubby and tacky and awful, all this fussing about money and profits!

The implied contrast is with morally pure academics, swanning around the world paid for by government grants, unfurling their deathless prose for the benefit of lesser mortals who have to scheme and plan and graft, to set up businesses, borrow capital, employ staff, hire premises and equipment, do deals and live with the permanent risk of going bankrupt or having your offices, staff or family attacked by anti-western zealots. What losers they must be, eh!

Bickers describes how a lot of the China traders got very rich very quick which, it is implied, was a contemptible thing. What depraved wretches! Lucky for us that we live in an era of perfect equality, with no disparities of income and wealth, either here in perfectly governed Britain, or in contemporary not-at-all-capitalist China. Aren’t we so right to feel superior to the past and their despicable get-rich-quick mentality 🙂

Eurocentric

The final irony is that, despite all his fashionably anti-imperial attitudinising, this book is in fact written overwhelmingly from the white western point of view. To be precise, from the British and, by and large, English point of view. Chaps’ diaries are used to put chaps down. Chaps’ accounts of their adventures are used to criticise chaps’ racist attitudes. Chaps’ reports back to the East India Company or Parliament are used to chastise chaps’ crudely mercantile way of thinking.

Oh silly, silly Victorians who knew nothing about multicultural studies or LGBT rights, who thought only in terms of their own age, cultural and social norms. How blinkered some people can be! Could they not guess how they would be judged in 150 years time and reorient all their actions accordingly?

Also, a thorough account of ‘the scramble for China’ really ought to include not just the British but the French, Portuguese and Dutch, with large roles for the Russians and Germans, all of whom got in on the act, scrambling for their own treaty ports and concessions. But in this book there are hardly any accounts of other countries’ activities.

All in all, this book is emphatically not a historical account of the multi-national scramble for China – it is a cultural and sociological study of ‘the British in China 1832-1915′ and its title really should have conveyed that more accurately.

And above all – irony of irony – for such a politically correct writer, there are hardly any Chinese voices in the text. This may be for all kinds of structural reasons, such as that many of these encounters weren’t recorded on the Chinese side, or that the archives were lost in the various revolutions and rebellions. But the fact remains that this is yet another book about the white British empire, by a white British historian, which relies overwhelmingly on the efficient and detailed record-keeping of white Victorian imperialists – in order to twist and quote them out of context with the sole intention of proving what awful racist money-grubbing insensitive imperialists they were.

In other words, through the academic jargon and preening rhetoric, there is little in the facts and nothing in the attitude which are either new or interesting. The Scramble for China conforms entirely and dully to the politically correct dogmas of our time.

Extended example

The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) was just one of several native Chinese uprisings which overlapped with, or promoted reprisals from, the European powers to create a terrifying vortex of violence right at the end of the nineteenth century. What you’d hope for from a long (400-page) historical account of the period might be an attempt to disentangle these events, to patiently explain and analyse them. Bickers does the opposite.

War was fought across Manchuria, as Russian forces razed Amur river cities, and smashed their way south into Manchuria and north out of Port Arthur. It was fought in Tianjin, the foreign concessions besieged by Boxer bands and the Qing army. It was fought all the hot dusty way to Peking, as a multinational force of foreign troops slogged their way to the capital and relieved the besieged legations and Christian cathedrals. War was fought in Shanxi province, as German and British columns tramped to Taiyun, slaughtering opposition on the way… War was fought between Boxers and Christians, between Qing armies with Boxer allies, and the ‘Eight Power’ allied expeditionary force. It was fought by British marines and Japanese infantry, as well as by Sikhs, Bengalis, Black Americans, Annamese, Algerians and a British regiment of Chinese from Weihaiwei… It was a cruel war: a war between states, a civil war, a fight for personal survival… (p.346)

My critique is simple: every one of these incidents (the battles and campaigns) and ideas (for example, the very mixed nature of the armies) ought to receive extended treatment so that the reader can understand these key events and these important issue better; can learn something.

Instead, this vast tangle of events and ideas is made subordinate to Bickers’ addiction to fancy rhetoric, to the single flashy rhetorical trick of starting a lot of sentences with ‘war was fought’ or ‘it was fought’. Sure, the repetition rams home the idea that there was a whole lot of fighting going on; but the most basic elementary entry-level journalistic questions – who, what, where, when, why and how? are ignored – not in the name of some compelling insight or new thesis – but in the name of grand-standing rhetoric.

Bickers is more interested in describing the way news of these events back home was chaotic and often fabricated, how reports were made up by European journalists or editors, along with staged photographs and how some of the very first newsreel footage in the new technology of moving pictures was also generally faked and rigged.

Golly! News is fabricated and created by fallible and/or profit-seeking papers, magazines and media outlets! Wow! Yes indeedy, Bickers is here to tell us that coverage of far-away wars is often sensationalist and inaccurate.

There was a dearth of authenticity in this much-faked war, characterised and impelled as it was by forgery and wild rumour (p.355)

To read Bickers you’d think this must be the only war in history characterised by ‘forgery and wild rumour’ – as opposed to the obvious fact that, as the saying coined a century ago puts it, the very first casualty of war is truth.– This is a truism. A cliché. A threadbare, bleedingobvious commonplace taught to every GCSE schoolchild. Why am I reading it in a book written by a professor of history as if it is a dazzling new discovery?

My contention is that Bickers knows an awesome amount about this period, but fails to report it clearly or accurately, preferring to corral it all into either a) huge paragraphs designed to show off his rhetorical prowess, or b) long sections filled with tedious academic jargon which, upon a closer reading, always turn out to be obvious and banal.

To adopt Bickers’ own sociological terminology, this book is history ‘recruited’ and ‘refashioned’ for personal ‘display’ and ‘aggrandisement’.

This example is far from unique. A few pages later he does the same thing again. In among the chaos of the turn-of-the-century conflicts there was a lot of looting and pillaging (as, I believe, has occasionally happened in other wars) – but do we gets details, context, causes or consequences, useful facts and analysis to help us understand and remember each of the distinct outbreaks and incidents? Nope. We get another set-piece of booming rhetoric:

They looted at Tianjin; they looted at Peking; they looted everywhere in between, and far out into the northern provinces. They looted for days, for weeks, for months. They looted arsenals, granaries, mints and palaces. They looted the instruments from the old Jesuit Observatory. They looted salt stocks and Tianjin, and treasure from pawnshops. They looted houses and hovels. They looted tombs. They took furs, silks, paintings, jades and porcelains. They looted gold-plate from the roofs of temples. They took books and statues. What they did not like or could not take they trampled underfoot, tore, burned or wrecked. (p.350)

OK, I get it – there was a lot of looting. But who, what, where, when, why and how? Not in this book, you won’t find these basic questions answered.


Conclusion

This long book is a struggle to read. The average person-in-a-hurry could pick up pretty much all they need to know in half an hour by reading these Wikipedia articles.

What this 400-page book gives you which Wikipedia doesn’t, is vast amounts of anthropological-ethnographic-sociological jargon, almost entirely about the Western, and specifically British, individuals involved in the opening up and colonising of China.

There are brief descriptions of festivals or temples, a bit about Peking architecture, many scattered details about relevant places and events though generally delivered in a confusing way – but little or nothing about Chinese art or poetry, history or attitudes, culture or politics – and nothing you can really grasp or learn from about the big wars in Victorian China and their geopolitical implications. And that was the main reason why I bought this book.

Instead, there are lengthy sociological disquisitions about the spread of Christianity through missionary activity (chapter 8), the rise of the Chinese Customs Authority under the legendary Ulsterman Robert Hart (chapter 7), a lengthy account of how Hart’s Customs helped organise a comprehensive network of lighthouses along China’s coast in the 1870s and 80s, which leads on to the western gathering of data generally, about the meteorology of the coast or of Chinese diseases (chapter 9).

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? But because it is all couched in the limited and stereotyped jargon of ‘practices’ and ‘networks’ and ‘sites of insult’ and ‘imperial enterprise’ etc, and because Bickers never drops his anti-British sentiment (lighthouses were – shockingly -built to make imperial trade safe and guarantee profits! meteorological data designed to help imperialist shipping! medical reports to help the racist westerners better able to exploit etc) it isn’t. It ends up all sounding the same. He manages to make a riveting period of history sound really boring.

Last thoughts

For my £15 I had to wade through hundreds of pages of preening prose and abuse being thrown at long-dead profit-hungry, racist imperialists – but did ultimately emerge with two newish (to me) thoughts:

  1. The China British were always a sort of spin-off of British India, using the same slang, building the same sort of houses, treating the locals, especially their servants and mistresses, with the same appalling and often violent condescension. And the Forward Party of China colonists really thought they could hoodwink and bully the British government back home into supporting an incremental takeover of China through piecemeal wars and ‘punitive actions’ – raucously calling for more and more belligerent intervention. This, after all, was all how we slowly acquired India. Hmmm. Interesting.
  2. Right at the end of the book Bickers describes how he has himself been subjected to harangues and lectures by modern young Chinese criticising him personally for being British and therefore to blame for the ‘century of humiliation’. What is interesting is that these young people have absolutely no experience of any of the events they cite (the violence of 1842, 1860 or 1901). But this story – how their country was subjected to a hundred years of imperialist conquest, a hundred years of victimhood – has been drummed into them by the Chinese state. Why? Bickers explains that, after the Chinese government violently repressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and arrested and imprisoned the reform-minded leaders who let it all get out of hand, they then undertook a sweeping review of Chinese education designed to emphasise the uniquely nation-saving achievements of the Chinese communist party and why all Chinese should be forever grateful to it. In order to boost its role as the goody in the story, the communists emphasised the irredeemable baddyness of all foreigners, of Western Imperialism, be it British, French or Russian, and also to lump in the decades of abuse from Japan as somehow permitted and encouraged by those imperialist farangs.

It is fascinating to learn that the anti-western feeling of many of China’s young educated people is more powerful and passionate today than it has ever been – and that it is encouraged by state-sponsored history books, courses and teachers.

The final chapter of Bickers’ book is thirty pages devoted to a rather boring description of how archives and records were rescued from China during the 20th century, and how a patchwork of researchers has set about writing more accurate and unjingoistic accounts of western, and especially British, imperialism in China. Fair enough.

The irony is that they are doing so at the same time as China’s authorities are also sponsoring a highly tendentious anti-western narrative. Bickers worries that this could lead to quite dangerous results:

A globalised China is not new; but a powerful global China is unprecedented. That provides new food for thought, especially as Chinese youth come out into the world equipped for instinctive indignation at China’s past humiliations and what they feel to be contemporary echoes of those. The awkward confidence that such sensitivity engenders in them might make for all of us a very awkward world. (Final words of the text – p.399)

Worrying, eh?

And this leads onto a final thought of mine, which isn’t in the book at all – that we live in an age of Victimhood, of ever-multiplying victim narratives competing to be heard. The Jews have a well-established Holocaust narrative which is now enshrined in Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27). Black History Month has been going since 1970 in the States, 1987 in the UK. Since as far back as 1909 there’s been an International Women’s Day, now held on 8 March. These are state-sanctioned days or periods solemnly commemorating what are, at heart, victim narratives.

But away from these official victim narratives, the sense of being victimised and humiliated proliferates in the modern world – the entire Arab world, for example, blames Europeans and especially the British for allowing Israel to be founded, for giving their countries stupid arbitrary borders, for interfering and undermining their nations in any number of 20th century coups and invasions, and for continuing to kill Muslims in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria – victim narratives which can be compiled into recruiting literature for al-Qaeda or ISIS.

I’m not passing judgement on any of these or the numerous other narratives of victimhood of our time – just pointing out the fact that the last pages of Bickers’ book make a riveting contrast to the previous 400. For the first 400 he gives hundreds of quotations from bombastic, jingoistic, imperialistic, often overtly racist, patronising and violently confident China pioneers, settlers and apologists all boasting about their power and might and supremacy. Right at the end of the book there is a loud screeching of brakes as you are suddenly dumped into the 21st century and find yourself surrounded by voices all clamouring to show off their weakness, to show you their wounds and their suffering, all competing to show you how vulnerable and abused and humiliated they have been.

Read newspapers and magazines from 1911 and they’re all about power, might and conquest; read newspapers and magazines from 2011 (when this book was published) and it’s a wall of helplessness, victimhood and suffering.


Related links

Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

China’s War with Japan 1937 – 1945 by Rana Mitter (2013)

The aim of the book

Mitter is an eminent historian of twentieth century China and of the period leading up to World War II in particular. In his introduction he points out that the Sino-Japanese War – which lasted from 1937 and then became subsumed in the wider World War – is often neglected in Western historiography which, perhaps understandably, focuses on the war in Europe/Russia and on the American War in the Pacific: both perspectives tend to overlook the fact that the Chinese were fighting the Japanese for four long years before the Americans joined the struggle. By providing one continuous narrative of the entire Sino-Japanese War, as seen from the Chinese point of view, Mitter aims to redress this imbalance and tell this generally ‘untold story’.

The second main point, which emerges increasingly as the wider World War progresses, is that China – as the four-year adversary of the Japanese, and as the country responsible right to the end of the war for tying down some 500,000 Japanese troops as well as supplying men to fight alongside the British in Burma – deserved much greater representation in the meetings of the Big Three – Russia, America, Britain – which decided the fate of the post-war world. China was only invited to one, minor, Allied conference – held in Cairo – and was not invited to Yalta, Tehran, Potsdam. To this day, Mitter claims, the lack of recognition of China’s part in the wider anti-fascist struggle, and then her deliberate omission from the meetings of the Big Three – which they think should have been a Big Four – rankle in the memory of educated Chinese.

It contributes to the smouldering Chinese sense that for a long, long time, for some 150 years, first the British and then the Americans assumed control and sway over the Pacific and all its peoples, and that Chinese interests and contributions were consistently ignored or trampled on.

Now, at last, in the 21st century, China is confident enough and powerful enough to begin to flex her muscles and assert her rights in the region. Which is why, Mitter argues, educated people in the West need to be aware of the often harrowing events of this brutal eight-year war, and of the emotional significance it still has for many Chinese, and how it still informs modern China’s attitudes and worldview.

The Sino-Japanese War

1. 1937 to Pearl Harbour (1941)

Having annexed neighbouring Korea (1910) and the huge northern province of China known as Manchuria (1931), the aggressively militarist Japanese Empire took the opportunity of a trivial border incident (at the so-called Marco Polo Bridge) to launch a full-scale armed invasion of China in July 1937.

When Japan attacked there were broadly three forces in China: the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-Shek (also known as the Kuomintang) which claimed to be the official government of the whole country; the smaller Chinese Communist Party – whose leaders included the up-and-coming demagogue Mao Zedong – and a number of regional warlords.

China was divided like this:

a) Because the latter part of the 19th century was marked in China by decades of civil war and administrative weakness. The biggest of these disruptions was the Taiping Rebellion, a vast civil war which dominated the 1860s and in which anything up to 100 million Chinese might have killed each other, and which people in the West have little awareness of. The rebellion had only been put down at the cost of giving autonomy to regional military leaders and it was this which established the pattern of ‘warlord’ control of some regions. A growing body of politicians, modernisers and revolutionaries all realised that the old imperial structures just couldn’t rule this huge country, and the turmoil eventually led to the overthrow of the Qing imperial dynasty in 1912 and the establishment of a republican government.

b) However, the nationalist revolutionaries proved incapable of preventing the country falling apart into a patchwork of regions controlled by local military leaders or ‘warlords’. Hence the complex geography and politics of the ‘Warlord Era’, 1916 – 1928.

Japan’s advance was swift not only because of China’s political, administrative and economic divisions but for the more basic reason that, under successive 19th century rulers, China had failed to modernise and keep up with the industrialised world. Convinced of their cultural superiority, of their lofty position as ‘the Heavenly Kingdom’, China’s rulers looked down on the big-nosed Europeans with their crude manners and obvious greed. Which turned out to be a mistake because the foreign devils (one of many discriminatory terms the Chinese use for non-Chinese) came armed with the benefits of the Industrial Revolution – steamships, guns, cannon, trains.

In the 1840s Chinese rulers found themselves forced at gun point to agree to treaties with Western imperialist powers – Britain, France, America – who secured for themselves coastal entrepôts (Hong Kong, Shanghai), exemption for Western citizens from Chinese law, but who (wisely) never made any attempt to colonise the vast peasant interior.

China’s economic and social backwardness contrasted with Imperial Japan, whose government realised in the 1860s that they had to keep up with the farangs by importing the best of Western know-how. The Japanese gave Westerners limited rights at certain specific trading ports but, more importantly, embarked on a wholesale reform and modernising of their technology and industry. By the turn of the twentieth century Japan combined an ongoing level of rural Asian poverty with surprising levels of urbanisation and industrialisation. This was brought forcefully home to everyone when Japan defeated Russia – itself arguably a vast, backward nation but still, in theory, European – in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Bolstered by this victory, Japan’s well-organised, well-equipped and well-managed army and navy went on to seize control of all Korea in 1910.

The disparity in cultural attitudes (Japan’s Big Yes to Western know-how compared to China’s lofty rejection), in their respective levels of industrialisation, and in central economic, political and military control, help explain why – when they decided to extend their occupation in 1937, Japan, with a population of just 72 million, managed to subdue China, with a population of about 520 million.

The war was marked early on by the Japanese massacre of the civilian inhabitants of the capital Nanking

and continued to be marked by extreme Japanese brutality and bloodshed, including the indiscriminate bombing of cities crowded with refugees – for example, the bombing campaign against the Nationalists’ temporary capital of Chongqing – which resulted in horrifying casualties.

The Nationalists themselves contributed to the mayhem with a ‘scorched earth’ policy, including burning some of their own cities to the ground before the Japanese could take them and – most notoriously – in 1938 breaking the dikes which held in the massive Yellow River. This created a truly epic flood over a huge area of central China which certainly delayed the Japanese advance but led to a mind-boggling 800,000 deaths from drowning, not to mention further deaths from disease and starvation.

The Communist forces, such as they were, had retreated deep into remote northern China in the long flight which their propaganda machine turned into the legendary ‘Long March’. About 70,000 communist cadres set out on it and maybe as few as 7,000 completed it, the rest dying or giving up along the way. Thus the bulk of the resistance to the Japanese invaders, of the actual fighting, fell to Chiang, his German-trained Nationalist forces, and whatever warlord allies he could press to help him (and who all too often let him down).

The whole story is a panorama of extraordinary chaos, suffering and death on a continental scale.

2. After Pearl Harbour

The story becomes a lot more comprehensible – and therefore interesting and memorable – once the Japanese have their bright idea to attack Pearl Harbour and declare war on the most powerful nation on earth. And Hitler decides – quite unnecessarily – to rally to their support and also declare war on America.

There had been an earlier turning point when the war in Europe broke out in September 1939 and Chiang’s Nationalists suddenly hoped for arms and support from the European democracies (who just happened to be the very same imperialist devils which Chinese nationalist propaganda had been reviling for decades). But, in the event, the supposedly all-powerful British Empire turned out to be weak – in fact, it was shown to be an essentially peacetime operation, able to carry out local police actions and just about manage a huge array of established colonial assets, but in no way ready for a war of aggression – unlike Germany or Japan. Britain herself struggled for survival in 1940 and ’41 and so the last thing on her mind was sending troops to the other side of the planet to fight in someone else’s war.

Pearl Harbour marked the beginning of the war for America, but was only a way station for the Chinese who had, by this stage, been resisting the Japanese for four long years. It would take three more bitter years to defeat them, with mixed results for Chiang’s Nationalists: on the one hand they now found themselves de facto allies of Britain and America in the war against Japan; on the down side, they now found themselves caught up in the very complicated diplomatic and military manoeuvering which took place even between the nominal allies Britain and America, with the added challenge of Stalin’s Russia, as well as coping with Mao’s communists and the Chinese collaborationist regime.

For one of the many untold stories which Mitter brings back into the light is the role of Wang Jingwei, at one time a colleague of Chiang’s, who was persuaded that the patriotic thing to do in order to prevent more loss of Chinese lives and destruction of Chinese land, was to co-operate with the Japanese. After agonising soul-searching – recorded in detail by one of his aides-de-camp, Zhou Fohai, in a diary from which Mitter liberally quotes – Wang agreed to fly back to the occupied former capital of Nanjing and allow himself to be set up as the Japanese-backed puppet leader of Occupied China – an equivalent of the Vichy Regime in France or Quisling in Norway.

The three years of the War in the Pacific are detailed in Max Hasting’s grim history Nemesis. Mitter usefully complements such Anglocentric accounts with his narrative of the ongoing battles – and the complex diplomatic manouevres – taking place in war-torn China.

One of the most interesting themes which emerge in the final part of Mitter’s book is that the various Chinese administrations – as they struggled to keep control of their areas and populations, to properly organise the collection of taxes, the feeding of soldiers, the distribution of the growing amounts of Allied aid – became progressively more centralised and relied increasingly on Terror as a political tool. Each of the three regimes set up secret police forces who used arbitrary arrest, torture and executions to intimidate dissident voices, each one headed by specific individuals – the equivalents of the Nazis’ Heinrich Himmler – who became notorious for their brutality and sadism. For Chiang’s nationalists it was Dai Li, for Wang’s collaborationists it was Li Shiqun, for Mao it was Kang Sheng.

And all three parties despised Westerners as culturally inferior, hated and bitterly resented the shame and humiliation they’d been subject to during the era of Unequal Treaties, and were – accordingly – contemptuous of the hypocrisy of Western ‘liberal, ‘democratic’ societies. None of them really understood the Western notion of democracy from below – the models of all three (as indeed of the conquering Japanese) was of top-down rule by a strong Leader – Generalissimo Chiang or Chairman Mao.

Given the huge political differences between all three factions and given the direct links between the Chinese Communists and Stalin’s Russia – Stalin told the CCP, basically, what to do – on the one hand, and the widespread corruption, brutality and inefficiency of Chiang’s Nationalists (to the many Americans who had experience of Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime, he acquired the nickname ‘Cash My Check’) on the other – it’s no surprise that relations between the Western Allies and the various Chinese factions were fraught with misunderstandings, miscalculations, misgivings and mistakes, which Mitter records in great detail.

3. Conclusion

By the end of World War II, the sustained struggle against the Japanese had exhausted Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces. By contrast the war had seen the growth in strength and confidence of the Communists who had been able to send out political cohorts to infiltrate broad areas of unoccupied China to spread their message of a revolution for the peasants, for the poorest of the poor.

It was also during the latter part of the war that Mao began to establish his grip on the Chinese Communist party through a programme of biting criticism and calls for ideological purity – the so-called ‘Rectification Process’ – which was the start of 30 years of intimidating, arresting and executing his opponents. As Mitter points out, the techniques which underlay the catastrophic Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s were first laid down in the early 1940s.

When the War in the Pacific came to an abrupt end in August 1945, the war for control of China still had four more bloody years to go, a ragged civil war in a shattered country which ultimately led to the complete seizure of power by the Communists and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949. The remnants of Chiang’s Nationalists fled to Taiwan, where they rule to this day. As Mitter sums up – Chiang’s Nationalists won the war but lost China.


Related links

Reviews of books about other Asian wars

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter (2013)

People were encouraged to transform themselves into what the communists called ‘New People’. Everywhere, in government offices, factories, workshops, schools and universities, they were ‘re-educated’ and made to study newspapers and textbooks, learning the right answers, the right ideas and the right slogans. While the violence abated after a few years, thought reform never ended, as people were compelled to scrutinise their every belief, suppressing the transitory impressions that might reveal hidden bourgeois thoughts behind a mask of social conformity. Again and again, in front of assembled crowds or in study sessions under strict supervision, they had to write confessions, denounce their friends, justify their past activities and answer questions about their political reliability. (p.xiii)

For three-quarters of the twentieth century (from the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 to the death of Mao in 1976) China was the site of enormous turmoil, war, famine, tyranny and suffering.

Frank Dikötter is a Dutch historian, professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, formerly of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In the last twenty years China has become easier to visit and has opened many of its historical archives to academics for the first time. Dikötter has taken advantage of this to spend years researching provincial records and archives hitherto unseen by western historians. This research has resulted in a trilogy of books detailing the first three decades of communist party rule in China:

  1. The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Communist Revolution, 1945–1957 (2013)
  2. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (2010)
  3. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (2016)

The general drift of all three books is that communist rule in China was much, much more repressive, bungling and catastrophic for the people of China than previously thought.

The centrepiece of the trilogy is the second book, about the great famine of 1958-62, which charges that it was much more consciously and deliberately engineered by the communist leadership (i.e. Mao) lasted longer (1958-62), and resulted in more deaths from starvation, than previously estimated.

Dikötter gives the figure of 45 million premature deaths, of which between two and three million were victims of political repression i.e. people beaten or tortured to death or executed for political reasons.

The famine book won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011 and was widely praised for the originality of its research, though it is not without its critics who consider the numbers inflated. No-one doubts, however, that Mao’s communist party oversaw the greatest mass death event in human history.

The Tragedy of Liberation is the second to be published in the trilogy, but covers the earlier period, setting the scene for the famine story by recounting the end of the War in the Pacific (1945), the eruption of civil war between China’s Nationalists and Communists (1946), and the eventual victory of the latter, announced in 1949.

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Timeline of the Chinese civil war

  • 6 and 9 August 1945 – the United States drops atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • 8 August – Stalin declares war on Japan and Soviet troops invade Manchuria. America sends hundreds of shiploads of lend-lease material and food to Siberia to support the Russians, including 500 Sherman tanks.
  • 21 August 1945 – A formal surrender between China and Japan ends the Second World War in the Pacific. Japan’s 1 million soldiers in China lay down their arms. The American army undertakes a massive airlift of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist troops to all China’s main cities to take over from them, before the communists get there.
  • April 1946 – Soviet troops withdraw from Manchuria, having stripped it bare down to the last lightbulb and bath plug (p.15), and having helped Mao’s communist army take control of most of Manchuria.
  • June 1946 – Nationalists undertake a massive military campaign against the communists in Manchuria. The communists are saved by George Marshall, President Truman’s envoy, who insists on a ceasefire, allowing the communists to regroup and get more training and supplies from the Soviets (p.16).
  • September 1946 – July 1947 – US President Harry Truman, disillusioned with the corruption and maladministration of Chiang’s nationalists, imposes an arms embargo which – since the communists are receiving ample supplies and training from Russia – has the effect of boosting the communist army.
  • December 1946 to December 1947 – Nationalists pump their forces into Manchuria in a bid to crush the communists who, better armed and trained than before, turn Manchuria into a killing field wiping out repeated waves of Nationalist forces.
  • November 1948 – The communists succeed in capturing all of Manchuria after blockading and starving several major cities. Civilian deaths due to starvation run into the hundreds of thousands.
  • January 1949 – The communist army, now known as the People’s Liberation Army, much reinforced and battle-hardened, heads south out of Manchuria. On 22 January Beijing surrenders to the PLA. In the same month the nationalists lose the battle of Xizhou in central China, exposing the huge Yangtse valley to communist takeover.
  • May 1949 – Nanjing, the nationalist capital of the south bank of the Yangzi, falls to the PLA. After a lengthy siege Shanghai, financial capital of China, falls to the communists.
  • October 1 1949 – Mao declares the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square.
  • December 1949 – Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his forces flee to the island of Taiwan, to this day an independent nation which China refuses to recognise. Realising their man had failed, the Americans were resigned to the eventual fall of Taiwan as well, but the situation was transformed with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, when Chinese-backed North Korean forces invaded American-backed South Korea. America rallied the United Nations in a bid to create a coalition to repel the North Koreans and this spilled over into supporting Chiang, so that Taiwan’s nationalists were ensured of survival.

Mass deaths

The civil war involved a number of sieges of nationalist cities during which large number of civilians were deliberately starved to death. The six-month siege of Changchun resulted in between 150,000 and 300,000 civilian deaths. The massive Huaihai campaign resulted in at least 500,000 deaths on the nationalist side.

Dikötter’s text is larded (rather like Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis) with eyewitness and first-hand accounts from all sources, civilians, peasants, students, soldiers on both sides and politicians. The overall impression is of death and destruction on a grand scale.

The communists in power

Dikötter’s book is a remorseless catalogue of the horrors of the civil war interspersed with the tyrannical policies of the narrow-minded, economically illiterate dictatorship. One of the clearest themes is that the communists achieved and maintained power through HATE at all levels. Categories of enemies were invented and then ‘discovered’ lurking at all levels of society.

An example he explains in detail is persecution of landlords. In Chinese the word landlord itself is an import from the Japanese language, because the thing itself was relatively rare. Dikötter shows that land in China was alienable i.e sellable, and was held by peasants and families under complex and highly detailed traditional contracts which also varied across the regions of China. But landlords, who owned land and raked off a profit by renting it to peasants, were relatively rare. Serfdom, on the Russian model, didn’t exist at all. But this didn’t stop Mao’s campaign to eradicate ‘landlords’ and so each province, region and local area was given quotas of landlords to identify and eradicate. With a gun in their hand and the ability to do whatever they liked, communist cadres across the country listened to the venomous vendettas which infest all rural communities, dragging unpopular villagers and their families in front of hurried kangaroo courts, where victims were abused and insulted before being showered in filth and, variously, shot immediately, beheaded, or flayed with knives, buried alive in sand or mud, hanged upside down or burned to death. Hundreds of thousands of peasants died this way and their – generally pitifully small – stocks of goods redistributed among the villagers. Obviously this didn’t lead to any particular improvement in agricultural production, in fact the disorder across the country disrupted resources, plans and distribution, so led to a drop in agricultural production.

But this is only one thread in the great tapestry of destruction. Another was the campaign against the ‘bourgeoisie’ in the cities, namely Nanjing and Shanghai. Once secure in the hands of the communists a curfew was imposed. Bars and nightclubs closed down. Decadent shops were closed down. Banks were nationalised. Capital could only be allotted by communist party cadres who were economically illiterate. Stocks and supplies ran short and so factories switched to part time work before closing down. Thousands of workers saw pay cuts and then were made unemployed. Convinced this was a conspiracy of reactionaries to discredit the party, the communist authorities took tighter control of the population, issuing identity cards and other papers, classifying every citizen into a series of categories e.g. student, professional, worker, peasant, with the workers and peasants in theory being the most advantaged. As the economic situation worsened, the communist authorities reacted with the only tool at their disposal, fear and terror, with increasing sweeps rounding up members of suspect professions and taking them for interrogation and torture and often execution.

In this and numerous other ways Dikötter’s book relentlessly catalogues the way the economically illiterate communists, blinded by the purity of their utopian doctrine, were forced to use the only strategy and language they understood, fear which was achieved by whipping up hysterical hatred of traitors, saboteurs, counter-revolutionaries, reactionaries, landlords, the bourgeoisie, intellectuals, and so on. These categories covered just about everyone, thus allowing the authorities to arrest and torture anyone into making confessions implicating strings of other people who were themselves tortured to confess, and so on.

‘You dare not speak with others about what was on your mind, even with those close to you, because it was very likely that they would denounce you. Everybody was denouncing others and was denounced by others. Everybody was living in fear.’ (Liu Xiayou, quoted on page 183)

Dikötter presents the evidence and estimates that the number of people killed in the first Great Terror, from 1950 to 1952, might be around 2 million. There were to be more waves of terror, many more. Two striking features of them are that:

  1. Mao’s orders which triggered these waves were always deliberately vague – this meant that cadres trying to carry them out tended to give them the broadest interpretation and arrest everyone, just in case.
  2. This was exacerbated by the use of quotas. Mao casually estimated that 1 in a 1,000 of each populated area should probably be executed. Once these orders were distributed to the cadres, they vied to gain the Chairman’s favour by exceeding the quota. Like quotas for steel or wheat production these were just more statistics to be reached and exceeded, the quicker the better. Authorities in different regions interpreted the lax definitions to suit themselves, and executed whichever groups were easily available and/or disliked, including ethnic minorities, petty criminals, anyone with any mark of suspicion against them.

Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis, is made bearable because, amid all the unspeakable Japanese atrocities, we meet Americans and English who are, basically, humane and kindly. There are moments of light, reason and humanity. Dikötter’s book is almost impossible to read because of the stifling sense that the reader is trapped in a totally repressed society, where absolutely everyone lives in fear all the time that the slightest remark, look, or even thought could lead to their arbitrary arrest, torture and execution – where brutality is ubiquitous. There are no reports of anyone being forgiving, kind or generous. It is a landscape of unrelenting tyranny, fear and violence.

In the campaign against ‘corruption’ in the early 1950s, suspects had their hair pulled, heads forced into toilets, forced to squat with kettles of boiling water on their head, forced to strip, were beaten and whipped, were made to stand naked in snow, were paraded through the streets to be jeered and spat at, forced to kneel in hot ashes, beaten with ropes (p.162), forced to kneel on benches or to remain bent over for hours, stripped and forced into vats of freezing water, bound with leg irons, beaten with bamboo sticks, tied hand and foot and forced to make confessions in front of mass rallies,

‘Denunciation boxes’ were placed in every office so citizens could denounce each other. Lorries patrolled the streets with loudspeakers insulting the corrupt bourgeoisie and enemies of the workers.

During this period up to 4 million government employees were hounded like this, many committing suicide. Dikötter devotes some pages to describing the suicide techniques of those hounded beyond endurance. Again, Mao came up with a scientific quota: 1% of suspects should be shot, 1% sent to labour camps for life, 2-3% sentenced to ten years hard labour.

Speak Bitterness Meetings

Timeline of communist repression

‘Socialism must have a dictatorship, it will not work without it.’
(Mao Zedong, quoted page 237)

  • 1942 – With the war far from won, and the communists facing a far stronger nationalist enemy, behind the lines Mao institutes a purge of his own communist party, named the ‘Rectification campaign’. Every member of the communist party, including the highest leadership, had to write an autobiography, produce self-criticisms, confess to past errors and ask the party’s forgiveness. By 1944 15,000 spies and traitors had been unmasked, tortured and executed.
  • 1950-52 – The communists implement land reform in the south.
  • October 1950 – October 1951 – The Great Terror, known as the ‘Campaign to Suppress Counter-Revolutionaries’ leads, apart from the murder and intimidation of millions, to an explosion in the prison population and the creation of a chain of forced labour camps (pp.243-254).
  • 1951-53 – Land having been redistributed, peasants are organised into ‘mutual aid teams’.
  • October 1951 – the campaign to purge the civil service begins, alongside a thought-reform campaign to indoctrinate the educated elite into communist ideology.
  • 1952 – Mao declares war on the private sector in the ‘Five Anti Campaign’.
  • 5 March 1953 – Josef Stalin dies.
  • Spring 1953 – As a result of state-imposed communalisation of agriculture, productivity plummets and large swathes of the country experience famine, people resort to eating grass, leaves and bark, with case of children being sold for food.
  • 27 July 1953 – Ceasefire halts the Korean War.
  • November 1953 – The communist state imposes a state monopoly on grain. The state set the amount to be grown in each region (often wildly optimistic), confiscated it all, returned a fraction (a starvation rations) to the farmers, while confiscating the rest to a) feed the cities b) export to Russia in exchange for industrial goods and weapons. The result was starvation across the country, mixed with open rebellion which was put down with maximum violence.
  • 1953-55 – Peasant mutual aid teams are transformed into fully fledged communes which share all tool, animals and labour. In effect, country workers become serfs in bondage to local communist leaders.
  • 1954 – Senior communist leaders are purged for treachery and splittism. More than 770,000 people are arrested in a campaign against counter-revolutionaries.
  • June 1955 – For the third spring in a row famine struck the collectivised countryside and millions of starving peasants flocked to the cities as beggars. So Premier Zhou Enlai announced the extension of the urban system of ‘household registration’ to the countryside, to tie rural workers to their villages.
  • 1955-56 – The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign accelerates collectivisation in the countryside and nationalisation of industry in towns. In July 1955 about 14% of China’s 120 million rural families were members of a co-operative; by May 1956, more than 90% were members. Dikötter sees this as the final step in the systematic reduction of China’s rural population to landless serfs tied to the state. It is accompanied by widespread violence, terror and intimidation. In the cities 800,000 owners of businesses, large or small, were deprived of their property and overnight became dependent on the whim of local party officials.
  • February 1956 – Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gives his famous speech denouncing Stalin and the ‘cult of the leader’. This bolsters Mao’s critics in the Chinese communist leadership. The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign is abandoned.
  • October 1956 – Encouraged by Kruschev’s speech and resulting deStalinisation, the people of Hungary revolt against the communist government. After some hesitation, the Soviets invade, crush all opposition, and impose a new, tougher regime, sending hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to labour camps.
  • Winter 1956-spring 1957 – In a response to Kruschev’s speech and deStalinisation, Mao institutes the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign, a more open political climate designed to avoid the overflow of protest seen in Hungary. But it goes too far, leading to a wave of student protest and strikes across the country, at which point, in the summer of 1957, Mao reverses the policy and puts Deng Xiaoping in charge of an anti-rightist campaign. This reaction persecutes up to half a million students and intellectuals, many of them packed off to gulags in the countryside to do hard labour for the rest of their lives.
  • 1957 – The communist party re-establishes its authority and rallies around the Great Leader. He prepares to declare the ‘Great Leap Forward’, which will lead to four years of famine and the greatest man-made disaster in human history, and which is the subject of the second book in the trilogy.
A peasant 'landlord' confesses all before a People's Tribunal moments before being shot (July 1952)

A peasant ‘landlord’ confesses before a People’s Tribunal moments before being executed (July 1952)

How to run a Maoist hate campaign

The first step is to declare that there is a ‘struggle’ or ‘war’ in society between the virtuous and the wicked. We must all be vigilant and watch each other and report anti-social actions or words, or even funny looks. Children must report their parents. Culprits must be ‘called out’ on their anti-social activity and brought before a mass meeting where they must confess their crimes and beg for mercy. They must reflect on their past behaviour and pledge to become a ‘New Person’, promising to dress, think and talk like everyone else, and be unstinting in their praise of the New World and the Wise Leader. The correct climate of fear has been established when everyone is nervous of being ‘named and shamed’ for the slightest slip or error. And anyone speaking up for a bourgeois deviant and enemy of the people will, of course, themselves immediately be proved guilty by association: why else would they defend the guilty?

Thus is a society atomised, making everyone fearful of everyone else, restricting conversation to the blandest generalities. It is important to have a large vocabulary of hate but to be vague about definitions, so that the maximum number of people can be caught by one term of abuse or another.

Thus the Chinese communists castigated ‘the enemy’ as, among other terms, a:

  • backward element
  • bourgeois
  • bourgeois idealist
  • bourgeois sentimentalist
  • capitalist roader
  • Chiang Kai-shek roader
  • counter-revolutionary
  • degenerate
  • decadent
  • deviant element
  • exploiter
  • go-it-aloner
  • hoarder
  • hooligan
  • humanist
  • hypocrite
  • individualist
  • kulak
  • lackey
  • landlord
  • middle-of-the-roader
  • reactionary
  • rightist
  • right deviationist
  • running dog of imperialism
  • saboteur
  • schemer
  • servant of imperialism
  • speculator
  • spy
  • swindler

Dikötter’s conclusion

‘The first decade of Maoism was one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century, sending to an early grave at least 5 million civilians and bringing misery to countless more.’ (p.xv)

Credit

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter was published by Bloomsbury Books in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2014 paperback edition.


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