Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, By JG Ballard

JG Ballard unveils what will probably be his last book
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The Independent Culture

JG Ballard has flirted with autobiography before. Empire of the Sun, still his most famous novel, and The Kindness of Women, its sequel, provided semi-fictionalised accounts of Ballard's childhood in Shanghai, his internment in a Japanese prison camp as a teenager, and then his life in post-war England. Only in the final chapter of this new memoir does he reveal his reasons for wanting to revisit his own life in prose: he has prostate cancer, and this will probably be his final book. It's dedicated to his children – the "miracles of life" of the title – and it takes the opportunity not only to set straight certain facts that were fictionalised in the autobiographical novels, but to acknowledge Ballard's friends and mentors and illuminate certain of the roots of his work.

Shanghai, where Ballard was born into a prosperous middle-class family, provided the scenes to which his fiction has circled back ever since. It was "a magical place, a self-generating fantasy," where "the fantastic, which for most people lives inside their heads, lay all around me." Ballard's English parents enjoyed their expatriate lifestyle of gin and bridge while their son, already caught up in his "intense private games", cycled endlessly around the city, eyes peeled.

When the Japanese invaded, the Ballards were consigned to Lunghua, a former college outside the city. James was 12. With distinctions of class and seniority dissolved, he made friends easily and quickly even in times of near-starvation. The description of life in the camp mirrors that in Empire of the Sun, with the distinction that in the novel his protagonist is an orphan: in Lunghua, the Ballard family lived on top of one another in tiny quarters. "I flourished in all this intimacy," Ballard writes, "and I think the years together in that very small room had a profound effect on me and the way I brought up my own children. Perhaps the reason why I have lived in the same Shepperton house for nearly 50 years... is that my small and untidy house reminds me of our family room in Lunghua."

In 1945 Ballard came to England for the first time with his mother and sister. He reacted with horror. The country's post-war desolation, its customs and concealments, struck him as alien, and it seems that the sense of being out of place has never left him. As recently as last year's Kingdom Come, he was writing of his fearsome shopping-mall-cum-ecosystem that "Like English life as a whole, nothing in Brooklands can be taken at face value".

He attended the Leys in Cambridge, a school with a scientific bent where he began writing and discovered Freud; then Cambridge, to study medicine. But by the time he finished the anatomy course – which provided him with "a vast fund of anatomical metaphors that would thread through all my fiction" – he felt finished with medicine. After winning a short-story competition in the university newspaper, he determined to become a writer. He moved to London and, after a brief spell of English at Queen Mary, quit academia altogether. He wrote ad copy, sold encyclopaedias, read, saw paintings, wrote.

"A jigsaw inside my head was trying to assemble itself," he writes, but it was only when he took a short-term commission in the RAF and was posted to a snowbound airbase in Canada that it came together. Ballard discovered science fiction, the territory in which he would make his name. "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."

The second half of Ballard's book describes his life as a writer and a father. His wife, Mary, died of pneumonia on holiday in Greece, leaving him with three young children to bring up. It's strange to think that the pieces in The Atrocity Exhibition – among them "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan", responsible for getting the book's US edition pulped – were written in the interstices of a busy single father's life. "A short story, or a chapter of a novel, would be written in the time between ironing a school tie, serving up the sausages and mash, or watching Blue Peter," writes Ballard. The same goes for Crash, a novel so furious and subversive that one publisher's reader pronounced its author "beyond psychiatric help".

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Miracles of Life is the revelation of so much human warmth behind the pitiless, ironic façade of Ballard's fiction. He writes with ease and compassion of his love for his family and his admiration for friends, such as Iain Sinclair and Will Self, and with enormous acuity of the political and social trends that he has made the backdrop to his recent fiction. This book should make yet more converts to a cause that Ballard's devotees have been pleading for years: that here, bafflingly unacknowledged, has been one of the greatest and sharpest imaginations at work in literature.