Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

As his armies of admirers know, JG Ballard saw and survived countless weird scenes as a child in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. What I had never grasped until this week was his friendship with Austin Powers. At Lunghua camp, the eerie site of young Jim's "largely happy years" of detention with his family (1943-1945), the future novelist ran around with a "fey and extravagant" stage-struck kid called Cyril Goldbert. Much later, when known as Peter Wyngarde, Cyril starred as "Jason King" on TV and so gave Mike Myers one template for his goofy and hirsute spy. Talk about (as Ballard, compellingly, does), "the surrealism of everyday life".

Along with scores of other incidents recounted with all his hallucinatory clarity, that Ballardian crash of alien ideas explains why his crisp and pacey memoir is such a mesmerising read. There seems to be a suspicion that readers who know his majestic, semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun, and its terrific successor The Kindness of Women, might not need to bother with Miracles of Life: from Shanghai to Shepperton (Fourth Estate, £14.99). But any fan who skips this book will overlook a jewel.

Ballard aficionados will find that those "trademark images" of ruin that can "all be traced back to wartime Shanghai" – the wasted hotels and overgrown pools, the cracked runways and flooded rivers – acquire an extra dimension of history and feeling. His family life, both with the elusive expat parents that he banished from the fictional camp and the beloved children who gave him "days of wonder" in the suburbs after his wife Mary's early death, comes across with fiercer tenderness than before. "My greatest ally," he writes, about the single-father routines that anchored him as his fiction charted ever-stranger seas of thought, "was the pram in the hall". In a way, that's more subversive than the "shocking" Crash.

I envy any newcomers to Ballard's imaginative landscape. In Miracles of Life (the title refers to his children), they can begin to taste the intermingled currents of Surrealism and Freud, of Pop art and "inner space" science fiction, that make him a master. As a writer, he can simply take the breath away – as when all the panic and terror of Mary's sudden, terminal illness on holiday in Spain congeals not even into an image, but into a literal death-rattle: "the sound of the iron-wheeled cart carrying the coffin across the stony ground".

Other pioneering writers always know just how important Ballard is. Among the younger planets who have orbited his star, here he namechecks Martin Amis, Will Self and Iain Sinclair. He might have cited a dozen others. Yet his chosen role as a "outsider and maverick" – the medical student and RAF pilot who steered postwar fiction on to a dazzling new course – means that the institutions he neglects can sometimes reciprocate his scorn.

Miracles of Life remembers Ballard's lunch chum Kingsley Amis, mostly with affection. I checked their entries in my Oxford Companion to English Literature. Typically, the author of Lucky Jim rates almost twice as many lines as that of Crash, The Day of Creation, High-Rise and (of course) Empire of the Sun. I'm no Amis-basher, but it strikes me that justice would be served were that ratio reversed.

Ever since he drove as a boy in "chauffeur-driven Buicks" through corpse-strewn Shanghai, Ballard has known that "the fantastic... lay all around me". His work sets out from the belief that modern reality always outpaces the "realist" novel, and often switches on the "visionary engine" of SF as the quickest way to reach it. Ballard, remember, gave us his melted ice-caps and flooded cities (The Drowned World) in 1962. The prophet has honour in his own country now; but still, not quite enough.