JG Ballard 1930-2009
JG Ballard, probably the greatest British novelist of the 20th century, died yesterday after a long battle with prostate cancer. He's been a huge influence on and inspiration for my own non-commercial work (writing and photography), and in recent years I've been an irregular contributor to the Ballardian website. The site editor, Simon Sellars, asked me to write something as part of the tribute to the man and his work. I sent the following.
I first read JG Ballard when I was 12 or so, after picking up 'Crash' (with that lurid orange Chris Foss cover) at a village hall jumble sale. I occasionally wonder to what degree this might have affected my development.
Over the next decade or so, I picked up a few other titles, but none hit me with quite the same force. I just wasn't struck by that intensity, that outrageous lucidity, which radiated from that battered paperback. But I gradually started to appreciate the subtler qualities of the writing, the humour, and the semi-detached perception. Gradually, his books started to just make sense to me. By the time I was living in a tiny flat in the dullest part of south London, barely writing a first novel and trying to find that elusive first job in journalism, I was a devotee.
So sometime round autumn 1996, I was thinking Ballardian thoughts as I trundled through the South Croydon wastelands towards an interview at some obscure trade journal. At the interview, the editor noted that, according to my desperately padded CV, I was working on a novel. 'Oh yeah,' he said. 'JG Ballard used to work here.' I got the job.
That's basically my Ballardian claim to fame - I used to do JG Ballard's old job at 'Chemistry & Industry'. Well, more or less - he was deputy editor, a role that didn't exist in my time, while I was production assistant and reporter. The magazine was still at the same premises on Belgrave Square, surrounded by the same pubs and curved balconies of concrete hotels, and my desk was certainly old enough to pre-date the 1950s. I felt a certain kinship.
The one time I met the man himself was in February 1998 at the ICA, where he was talking about movies with David Leland. Afterwards, Ballard stayed on stage to chat with anyone who wanted to jump up and say hello, even as the ICA staff tried to clear the room for the next event. I said I was doing his old job and showed him my business card. He briefly reminisced about his own time there, and seemed genuinely pleased and interested to hear how things were going, some four decades after.
My plan to follow in his footsteps by rapidly finishing an acclaimed novel or two, then quitting work to write in creative seclusion, never quite worked out. But he remained an inspiration, in work and life. That long-unfinished first novel definitely bears his influence (along with Norman Mailer, another recent loss), though possibly not in ways detectable to anyone else. As an intensely visual writer, he's also a constant presence when I'm out taking photographs. Whether in stories or pictures, that influence comes from his unique way of seeing - that forensic examination of the landscapes of the late 20th century, the disasters and psychopathologies, the art and the technology. That medically-trained analysis of the nature of the catastrophe, and the acceptance of it all.
Ballard's also proved a near-infallible guide to a parallel world of literature (though, personally, I still can't be bothered with Self or Amis Jr). Any book I might find while scavenging secondhand shops which carries an adulatory blurb from the man gets added to the pile. Equally, I've found various writers (from Nathanael West to John Gray) by other routes and been greatly impressed by them, only later finding that they're also favourites of Ballard's. And of course you could build a library out of the many other writers, artists, musicians and film-makers who've acknowledged their deep debts to the man.
Unlike many of the other folk adding their tributes here, I'm not a literary critic or academic (nor, to be honest, would I wish to be). I'm a fan, though I wish there was another word for that. And through my developing fascination with the man's work, I've been privileged to meet, drink, and make friends with a whole bunch of fantastically creative and intelligent people, of all ages and professions, from as near as Sheffield to as far as Australia, who've all been equally enthused in their own idiosyncratic ways.
Apart from the infinitely explorable mass of his writing, I think maybe that's the legacy of JG Ballard - the dispersed generations of people who might call themselves, in whatever sense, Ballardians. The readers for whom his writing and his vision just made sense. The saddest realisation is that there'll be no more.
Pics: (Top) Set of photos by Donovan Wylie for an unpublished magazine profile of JG Ballard, on show at the 'Autopsia del nou Mil.leni' exhibition at CCCB, Barcelona, October 2008.
(Above) JG Ballard's childhood home at 31a Amherst Avenue in Shanghai's old international settlement, now the SH508 restaurant, October 2008.