I wonder what imagined slight led John Baxter to write such an insidious biography on J G Ballard? Does Baxter, a failed science fiction writer, who started his short-lived career around the same time as Ballard, have some deep-seated grudge against the guru of suburbia that his new biography The Inner Man - The Life of J G Ballard was aimed to settle? From its opening introduction, which begins with Baxter describing Ballard soliciting ‘automobile porn’ from his Danish translator, one wonders what exactly is Baxter’s intention, other than to diminish Ballard’s talent and originality.
If we are to believe Baxter then Ballard was an ad-man who got lucky, a psychopath scarred by childhood experiences as a prisoner of war, his whole life and career merely an exercise in skillful “image management”.
While in person Ballard had “the voice of a born advertiser, paradoxically preaching a jihad against commerce: the contradiction at the heart of Jim’s life”. Even his ambition to become a science-fiction writer could be seen as “an aspect of his psychopathology, for it echoes the hostility of someone trying to hide a physical or psychological dysfunction - epilepsy, dyslexia, illiteracy”.
In person, Jim presented a veneer of good-fellowship, slick as Formica and just as impermeable…
...This reflexive affability disguised a troubled personality that sometimes expressed itself in physical violence…
...Jim never denied that his psychology bordered on the psychopathic.
Really? But he never admitted it either. And as for the “physical violence” Baxter supplies no evidence, no eye-witnesseses, other than a now refuted quote from author Michael Moorcock. So what are we to make of Baxter’s book?
There is something interesting going on here, Baxter has created a fictional biography filled with factoids - things that look like facts, sound like facts, but are in truth fictions. It’s the kind of technique mastered by the likes of Adam Curtis or the Daily Mail, where unrelated facts are linked to support strange or spurious arguments. Sadly, The Inner Man is riddled with such factoids, with Baxter concluding:
Jim’s skill was to speculate and fantasize, evade and lie. ‘Truth’ was not a word he regarded with much respect, least of all in describing and explaining his life. In its stead, he deployed the psychopath’s reverence for the instant present, for frenzy, for the divine, and for those forces, natural and unnatural, that are forever slipping beyond our control.
The whole biography is like an ident-i-kit photograph constructed by a man suffering from the worst affects of a bad acid trip - the image may contain likenesses of eyes, nose and mouth, but the whole is disturbingly inhuman.
There is no warmth to his vision of Ballard, everything is seen as a cynical ploy by a man who is cast as an “intellectual thug”, and whose “paramount skill was his ad man’s ability to remarket himself.” There is no explanation as to how he coped with bringing up 3 children after his wife’s tragic death while on family holiday in Spain. How he buried her in a little Spanish cemetery, then drove home with the children, having to “pull over to weep uncontrollably.”
Not surprisingly, Ballard’s children, and his partner Claire Walsh, did not take part in Baxter’s cut and paste assemblage. Moreover, there are no quotes from any of Ballard’s books, only brief synopses, which only reminded me of Terry Johnson’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe from his play Insignificance, where the glamorous star can recite Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but hasn’t a clue what it means. Baxter can sub Ballard’s novels, but he has no real understanding of what they are about.
There are also some glaring mistakes - Eduardo Paolozzi was not a “burly Glaswegian” but was born in Leith, Edinburgh. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you,” and not H. G. Wells. If Baxter (and his editors) can’t get the verifiable facts correct, why should we believe him on any of his unsubstantiated assertions?
This is why Baxter’s biography fails.
He also fails to see Ballard and his work within a wider cultural perspective. Before Ballard and his family were imprisoned at the camp in the Lunghua, George Orwell predicted the world that Ballard was to write about and make his home for most of his life, in his 1941 essay “England Your England”:
The place to look for the germs of the future England is in the light-industry areas along the arterial roads. In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes - everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns - the old pattern is gradually changing into something new. In those vast new wildernesses of glass and brick the sharp distinctions of the older kind of town, with its slums and mansions, or of the country, with its manor houses and squalid cottages, no longer exist. There are wide gradations of income but it is the same kind of life that is being lived at different levels, in labor-saving flats or council houses, along the concrete roads and in the naked democracy of the swimming-pools. It is a rather restless, cultureless life, centering round tinned food Picture Post, the radio and the internal combustion engine. It is a civilization in which children grow up with an intimate knowledge of magnetoes and in complete ignorance of the Bible. To that civilization belong the people who are most at home in and most definitely of the modern world, the technicians and higher paid skilled workers, the airmen and their mechanics, the radio experts, film producers, popular journalists and industrial chemists. They are the indeterminate stratum at which the older class distinctions are beginning to break down.
Orwell could have been describing Ballard’s future vision of Shepperton - a world of swimming pools, airmen, film producers, industrial chemists, who live on the arterial roads, on the outskirts of a great town.
J G Ballard deserves a good, solid, informed biography, unfortunately, John Baxter’s The Inner Man - The Life of J G Ballard is not it.
Previously on Dangerous Minds
Postcards from J G Ballard