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From Shanghai to Shepperton Excerpt

Back to RE/Search #8/9: J.G. Ballard

Shanghai itself was one of the most extraordinary and bizarre places on earth, a place where anything went, completely without constraints. Every conceivable political and social crosscurrent was in collision there. War in all its forms was institutionalized in Shanghai, after the Sino-Japanese War began in 1937. I remember in ’38 or ’39 having to leave our house on the outskirts of the city, and move into a rented house in the center of Shanghai, because the Chinese and Japanese forces were firing shells whose trajectories were righ toverhead . . . I remember seeing a lot of troops, and going out frequently to the battlefields around Shanghai where I saw dead soldiers lying around, dead horses in the canals and all that sort of thing. The Japanese were sitting around the city, and in fact occupied all but the International Settlement. Our house was on the western outskirts of Shanghai, actually outside the International Settlement and within the area controlled by the Japanese. The whole business of checkpoints and military occupation had been there since the earliest days I can remember. Huge armies engaged, naval forces came up the river, and large sections of the city were under air attack by Japanese bombers. This had been going on for years, so Pearl Harbor wasn’t that big a surprise . . .

My father was a chemist originally. He joined a big Manchester firm of textile manufacturers—this was before I was born—and he moved into the management field. They had a subsidiary in Shanghai of which he was the chairman and managing director throughout the 1930s and into the ’40s. I was sent to the cathedral School in Shanghai before the war. A very authoritarian English clergyman was the headmaster there, and he used to set lines. It’s the most time-wasting enterprise one could imagine, but he would say ‘500 lines, Carruthers! 600 lines, Ballard!’ for some small infringement. Five hundred lines was about 30 pages of a school exercise book. You were supposed to copy out school texts, and I remember starting to copy from a novel about the Spanish Armada. It was something like G.A. Henty, or it might have been Kingsley’s Westward Ho! (I remember that. It has a marvelous last paragraph which has stayed with me all my life; the last paragraph of that novel is a fine piece of prose, and you ought to find echoes all over my fiction!) Anyway, I started copying out this high adventure narrative. I suddenly realized—I was only about nine or 10—that it was easier, and it would save a lot of effort, if I just made it up, which I did. So from then on I would make up my own narratives. I think the authoritarian clergyman must have scanned my lines because he reprimanded me by saying: ‘Ballard, next time you pick a book to copy your lines from don’t pick some trashy novel like this!’ He didn’t realize I’d written it myself. I think there’s a judgment on my whole life and career there—I’ve gone on writing within that sort of seditious framework! I went on writing little short stories and pieces, even when we were in the prison camp—just adventure stories and thrillers, my own variants on whatever I happened to be reading.

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