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4.0 out of 5 stars Degrees Of Separation?, 13 Oct. 2009
This review is from: Miracles of Life (Hardcover)
I had never heard of the author until I saw the film version of Empire of the Sun, perhaps his most popular work. Apparently, he is an eminent, if not pre-eminent British writer. This book tells his life story in outline, concentrating somewhat on his upbringing in Shanghai, where he lived with his parents in a house which might have been in Surrey or Berkshire and which, amazingly, has survived wars, revolutions and China's emergence into superpower status.

Ballard sees life with, I should say, a clear and even cold eye, perhaps the result of his solitary childhood and early teenage years interned in a Japanese-run camp (in an industrial building) in Shanghai. He later saw, at the end of the war, Japanese soldiers casually strangling or otherwise killing some of the Chinese people around. He comes to the UK for the first time in 1946, to be amazed by how defeated the "victorious" British look, "putty faced people" in "shabby" houses. When he visits his terminally tight-fisted grandparents in the Midlands, he surmises that their meanness with money (which is undeniably a British trait even today in many cases) came from wartime rationing. He wonders whether it would have been better not to declare war on Germany in 1939 (I certainly agree with that, but for different reasons) and, on entering Cambridge, realizes pretty quickly that much of it is a kind of ivy-covered theme park, with modern scientific additions. Yes. He has little time for the delusions of Britain then (which largely persist today). He abandons medicine, however, for writing.

His own views are largely kept under wraps, though it is obvious that he is an atheist, perhaps one of those who think that if God, the Gods, spiritual forces or intelligent design existed, then He or they would not permit the kind of things he saw in Shanghai. And he sees no Spirit in the cadavers he has to dissect on the post-mortem tables and so assumes the absence of spirit generally.

I found this a very interesting well-written book on the whole. I was amused by his dry linking of a sci-fi expo in London in 1955 with the people in the UK today: the "muscleman husband" and his "stripper wife" living in the suburbs. Is this not very much the case today, in the cramped private developments which are home to so many British people, the shaven-headed man and sex-and-celebrity-obsessed woman in their little post-Thatcherite dream world, the home they "own" (apart from the 90% mortgage) and the tiny patch of "garden" with deck and "water feature"?

I was also intrigued that one of his friends in the camp at Shanghai was one Cyril Goldbert, later to find belated theatrical fame as Peter Wyngarde, the star of British TV's 1960's spy spoof Department S. I recall seeing the latter day Wyngarde of the late 1970's a few times, he dressed in a black cat suit, at the bar of the Kensignton Rifle and Pistol Club, where I was then a member (and he on the Committee).

Ballard is largely unjudgmental (on the surface) but does allow some bile to come out, I think understandably, against the subsidized (Arts Council, Lottery "good causes") literary and artistic world. As he says why should a working man's taxes be used to subsidize the literary hobbies of the sons of "North London" (code for Jewish?) doctors? He names in particular "the late editor of the New Review" whom he describes as "an unpleasant Sho idler". I recall decades ago Private Eye referring to "Ian Hamilton's pathetic New Review", a magazine I have never seen, perhaps fortunately!

Worth reading.
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