A Ballardian Treasure Hunt (II)


One September morning many years ago I got up early and cycled away from my flat in search of JG Ballard’s childhood.

I was armed with a 1930s map of Shanghai as well as a modern version. I’d watched a BBC documentary following Ballard back to Shanghai in the early nineties the day before and had watched Empire of The Sun again so it would be fresh in my mind.

The streets were fairly empty as I pedalled towards my first goal—Longhua Temple, which was just the other side of Xujiahui from where I lived. During Ballard’s internment Longhua Temple’s pagoda had been converted into a flak tower, each of its levels holding anti-aircraft guns. It was well signposted and simple to find as the site now also holds the Longhua Martyrs Memorial, commemorating the Chinese resistance of Japanese occupation. The pagoda itself had been moved and rebuilt a good kilometre from its original position which to me negated its significance. An entire book could be written on the subject of China’s historical memory, but suffice it to say at this moment—if something old or ancient is bulldozed and even forgotten about, all that needs to be done is for it to be rebuilt with modern means and materials and its historicity is continuous and undeniable: a bit like if Hadrian’s Wall was knocked down and rebuilt from scratch and people said it was nearly 2000 years old…


Nearby the pagoda, I cycled through bare alleyways—everything around had been demolished and lay waiting for developers. I saw a row of makeshift houses and huts offering scooter repairs and recycling (common services in old areas of Shanghai for some reason!) and made my way towards them over the canal. To my surprise they had been positioned on top of railway tracks which were visible between the huts; I followed the line as best as I could make out and came out onto a busy road. In front of me lay the former terminal building for Longhua Airport—its distinctive shape and tower long-since converted into shops.

Longhua Airport will be familiar to readers of Empire of the Sun as the airport where the young Ballard would watch from the camp the Japanese fighters taking off, and where he began to dream of flying himself. When I first went there, the airport runway was blocked off and being used as a place for coaches to park; in the years since I’ve seen it completely developed with office buildings and shopping centres being built over it. Today, names like Airport West Rd and the distinctive shape of the terminal are the only indication that an airport was ever there.

I continued following the partially submerged train tracks past the terminal building and along Longheng Rd. From here, the tracks were completely sealed off. I could see the tracks over the wall which were overgrown and rusted—it must have been a long time since they’d been used. At the end of the road the tracks went over a closed bridge across the busy Longwu Rd—on the opposite side someone had hung their washing across the unused train line. But I didn’t want to continue exploring the tracks—that was for later in the story—that was for after the war. I turned left onto Longwu Rd and went in the direction I thought the POW camp would be.

I don’t why I had gone out so unprepared—perhaps I wanted the feeling of discovering something for the first time—but in the case of the camp where Ballard had spent most of the war and that served as a backdrop to the events of Empire of The Sun, I knew its approximate location (past the airport) and that it had been returned to its original function as a school. In my mind I had the image of the school as it appeared in the BBC documentary 20 years earlier. The 1930s map I had of Shanghai didn’t go this far out so I had no idea how long I’d be cycling around before (if ever) I found it.
I cycled past Shanghai Botanical Garden which was one landmark on my route and which told me I was at least going in the right direction. A few turns, wrong turns, u-turns and then I saw it—the gates of Shanghai Middle School with its conifer-lined avenue leading to the familiar image of the old camp headquarters. In front, the flower bed that flew the Japanese flag was still there (minus the flag, of course).

Being a Sunday, the school was closed; not that the guard at the gate would have let me in anyway. I cycled along the perimeter and peered in where I could, imagining the young Ballard being on this spot more than 60 years ago…

A Ballardian Treasure Hunt (Part 1)

JG Ballard’s experience of living in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation in WW2 is well known to many through the Steven Spielberg film ‘Empire of the Sun’. But to work out the true events of his childhood in Shanghai, and to separate the facts from the fiction is not easy because of the different versions—some of which overlap events with different narratives and some which tell different branches and ‘versions’ of the story.
It is not hard to get confused and even mythologise his Shanghai story because of the many versions:

‘Empire of the Sun’, the novel
‘Empire of the Sun’, the film
‘The Kindness of Women’, Ballard’s sequel to ‘Empire of the Sun’ whose first chapter is set in Shanghai at the end of the war.
‘Miracles of Life’, Balllard’s autobiography.
Various interviews with Ballard – particularly a BBC documentary following him returning to Shanghai for the first time since the war in the early nineteen-nineties.

My specific interest in retracing the young Ballard’s steps started several years ago when I found by chance that an old house I had walked by hundreds of times had been the Ballard family home.

It was just starting to be renovated and turned into a restaurant. Located on Panyu Rd near Xinhua Rd it is a typically out of place but perfectly fitting architecture for that part of Shanghai—a European-style house with its triangular awnings and faux-Tudor facade that was built in the former International Settlement in Shanghai’s then far-western city limit.

When looking at a pre-1949 map of Shanghai, it’s quite easy to see familiar layouts of roads that exist today. But one glaring difference soon becomes obvious—the names of the roads. After the Communists won the civil war and the country isolated itself, all the original, colonial names of Shanghai’s roads and avenues were replaced—either with the names of Chinese cities, provinces, mountains and ‘revolutionary’ names or, in the case of a small few, transliterated into Chinese characters. So the first thing you need to track down Ballard’s childhood home at 31A Amherst Avenue near Columbia Road is a pre-PRC map.

I remembered Ballard writing about the view from his bedroom window beyond the edge of the city where he could see burial mounds; today, this part of the city is considered central and is completely built up—the burial mounds long levelled and likely churned up for the foundations of tower blocks.

About 5 years ago the Ballard house was renovated again—this time completely tearing out the original fittings, window frames and even walls. Its grand garden where Ballard would have played has been cut in half with a large greenhouse-like structure which is used for weddings and other large parties.

The front of the building seems like it has always been the front, with its facade and driveway facing the modern Panyu Rd. But actually, for Ballard, the front door was on the the other side of the building—today accessible by a narrow tree-lined alley off Xinhua Rd; the original doorway is still there but completely filled in and with a wall built in front of it—it feels like a metaphor for the old Shanghai which is subtly preserved but not lived; neither destroyed but equally, not acknowledged. Incidentally, Xinhua Rd is the modern name for Amherst Avenue and means ‘New China Road’—a common road name and phrase used across the country post-1949. If you wander west along Xinhua Rd you’ll see, like in other parts of the old International Settlement and former French Concession, plaques stuck to the stuccoed walls of remaining old villas explaining the architectural styles and construction dates and occasional famous former residents of the buildings. Immediately it strikes the Ballardian that there is no such plaque outside his house, even today after it being well-known by fans that one of the 20th century’s greatest English writers had lived there as a child.

If there was no collective memory of Ballard living there then, I wondered, what about all the other places he described? Did those places remember JG Ballard?

In the next two parts I will be writing about the treasure hunt I embarked on to find the places of Ballard’s youth for myself—rom his home on Amherst Avenue to the prisoner of war camp and airport that fill most of the scenes of ‘Empire of The Sun’.


(This post was originally published in The Stele)

‘The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses’, Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin’s 1928 collection, One-Way Street, is a fragmentary and seemingly disconnected assemblage of short prose pieces covering all manner of everyday things such as dreams, jokes, psychology and fashion. In one of these pieces, Benjamin gives advice to writers about technique, ritual and habit:

The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses

  1. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.
  2. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.
  3. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.
  4. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.
  5. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.
  6. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.
  7. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.
  8. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.
  9. Nulla dies sine linea [‘No day without a line’] —but there may well be weeks.
  10. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.
  11. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.
  12. Stages of composition: idea—style—writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.
  13. The work is the death mask of its conception.

‘The Flowers of Evil’ by Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire’s most famous collection, The Flowers of Evil, is not a collection of poems in the normal sense—3 editions were published during his lifetime with new poems added with each version.

When The Flowers of Evil was first published in 1857, it was immediately condemned and Baudelaire and his publisher were (successfully) sued for releasing poems that were ‘offensive to public morals’. The collection was republished soon after minus the 6 poems that had caused the uproar.

Despite its reputation, The Flowers of Evil seems tame and traditional from a distance (or with eyes squinted)—perfectly-formed sonnets and other traditional forms are utilised as a smokescreen for Baudelaire’s themes of unrealised dreams, disillusion, sex and, most of all, ennui. The poems swerve between passion and despair—one cycle in the collection is even called ‘Spleen and Ideal’.

Baudelaire lived and walked Paris at a momentous time for the city—not only was France going through the political upheavals of the July Monarchy, the Second Republic and the formation of the Second Empire, but Paris was a city in complete regeneration; the city’s alleyways and compact buildings were bulldozed and rebuilt into the broad boulevards and grand buildings that Paris is known for today. His poems describe the squalor and transformation of the city though its industry, theatres, brothels and restaurants—Baudelaire avoids making his poems sentimental or moralising though.

In this edition, new English translations face the original French and without knowing French at all it’s possible to see, to hear the poems with their depth of rhyme and alliteration which Baudelaire mines the language for. Here’s an audio recording of a (slightly different) translation of one of the poems from The Flowers of Evil, ‘Obsession’.

‘The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence’ by Baltasar Gracián

Gracian is the Macchiavelli most have never heard of. He was a Jesuit priest in 17th century Spain, but the ‘Soldier of God’ side doesn’t come out in this work. In fact, besides the occasional quote or reference to Ignatius (the Jesuit order’s founder), the text is entirely secular in tone.

What does come across quite strongly though is his inspiration from and adherence to Stoicism. He regularly quotes and alludes to Seneca and Epictetus, and many of his aphorisms promote Stoic themes in life:

‘We climb the ladder of life, and the rungs — the days — disappear one after another, the moment we move our feet. There is no way to climb down, nothing to do but go forward.’

So why Macchiavellian? This, his most famous book, is a collection of exactly 300 aphorisms inspired by, and meant to help navigate, the backstabbing world of 17th century Baroque Spain. His ‘tips’ were for negotiating not just the higher echelons of government (he was confessor to the viceroy of Aragon at one point) but all levels of social strata and the competition that was natural in society. Gracian’s lumping in with the spirit of Macchiavelli is due to the directness of some of his advice, particularly where he endorses the idea that the end justifies the means. Gracian also has some apparently cold opinions about friendship and the usefulness of friends.

Gracian wrote in a popular style of the period known as ‘Conceptism’, the aim of which was to be as brief, direct, intelligible and witty as possible. This gives his work a simplicity and accessibility which makes it easy on the eyes of modern readers. The short aphorisms themselves allow the reader to read one and then spend time to digest it before moving on to the next (and often, thematically unrelated) one.

The Pocket Oracle is also eminently quotable. I’ve always read with a pen and notebook to hand to scribble down any interesting sentences – some books will make me stop frequently to do this while others, though not necessarily any less profound, have no memorable sentences. With the Pocket Oracle, you can end up highlighting or re-writing the entire book – it’s chock full of witty phrases, memorable analogies and colourful metaphors.
So it wouldn’t be worth writing all of my favourite quotes from the book here – just get a copy and read it. I will quote one odd little sentence here though, which caught my eye because I’m 6’3”:

‘It’s a commonplace that a tall person is rarely wise – not so much long-legged, as long-winded.’

Thanks Baltasar…

I have two regrets about the reading of this book: first, I read it as I would read a novel; that is, several or many pages at a time. The disadvantage of this is that, as each aphorism rarely takes up even half a page, there is no time to reflect on each one without going back and spending more time on it. So if/when I come back to this book in the future I’ll read one aphorism at a time; in this sense it makes the perfect book to keep on your bedside table and read one aphorism a night.
My other regret is not having known about it when I was in my teens having only got around to it in my late-thirties. I imagine this would be the ultimate fount of knowledge for someone in their late teens or twenties, just as they’re starting to need practical wisdom to navigate adult life. In fact, that reminds me of of one aphorism in The Pocket Oracle which summarises the entire work; that is, how to live:

‘What use is knowledge, if it isn’t practical? And today, knowing how to live is true knowledge.’ 

A brief look at… ‘Pied Beauty’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things —

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;

And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Hopkins is the kind of poet you can really fall in love with—his style, though carefully metered, is multi-coloured, luminescent, brands the reader’s eyes and begs to be read aloud. Even 150 years later, his poems still feel fresh, innovative and modern.

Pied Beauty is his most well-known and loved poem; it’s a poem about the beauty of ‘pied’ things—that is, things of two colours or shades, light and dark, black and white.

The first line puts Hopkins’ faith front and centre: he was a Jesuit priest and many of his poems are approached from the angle of faith. The double-coloured ‘things’ that Hopkins describes are his way of celebrating difference and diversity in God’s creation.

Hopkins’ defining feature as a poet is not his ‘Christian-ness’ though , which on its own would have likely prevented his poems from withstanding the passage of time through to our secular era. Hopkins’ strength was his use of the English language in innovative ways: his signature compound nouns and adjectives that took existing, stale language and created new, evocative and emotional images.

When you look closely at the language he uses it soon becomes apparent that there is something ‘pure’ about his choice of vocabulary—there is a uniformity of language that he very purposefully selects; he avoids the Latinate and the Greek and other influences that are part and parcel of our everyday, mixed-race English, and chooses instead to use the Anglo-Saxon—the ‘Old’ English. Throw the words from Pied Beauty into an etymological dictionary and they are almost all of Old English origin.

That’s not the only Anglo-Saxon English connection—the alliterative runs that he uses are typical of Old English heroic poetry—yet Hopkins takes this style and creates something thoroughly modern.

There is poise too—Hopkins isn’t just inventing new words and playing a sort of Victorian word game—he keeps the metre tight in the Curtal Sonnet form (a variation of the sonnet that he invented himself) and the rhymes full: he perfectly begins runs of alliterative and assonant lines with sounds that morph into other sounds—perhaps as a symbol of the flux of the natural phenomena he is describing:

‘Fold, fallow and plough’, or

‘… swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;’

The poem finishes as it starts: in contrast to the fickle and transitory nature of every thing in the world, Hopkins returns to God whose ‘beauty is past change’ and his exhortation to Praise him’.

The first draft

So I have just finished writing the first draft of my first novel. It took about 41 years to get here. Okay, that’s not strictly true—I haven’t exactly been spending my entire life trying to eke out 90,000 words to call a first draft; but there have been many times and many periods throughout my life when I thought that I should write a novel.

There was the aborted attempt in my twenties when I got about four thousand words in then decided it/me just wasn’t working. That cancelled attempt is still lingering somewhere on a floppy disk as a Word 93 .doc file; I’d be quite interested in reading it if I knew anyone with a floppy disk drive…

The first attempt of my current work-in-progress was two years ago. I had to wait three months for my visa to clear before being able to work so I decided it would be the ideal time to write a novel—no excuses about being too busy, this was my golden opportunity.

I flew out of the blocks and got into a routine of writing every morning. It was new and exciting and, even though I didn’t have a firm idea about where it was going, I knew the plot would manifest itself the further I got inside it.

Then I stopped. A new job combined with a new baby and suddenly my energy levels and motivation levels collapsed and that was the end. The further away I got from my last writing session the more I realised I would never come back to it.

But about 18 months later, I read through what I had written and started to get the feeling back for it. So for the past three and half months I diligently chipped away at it, finishing just over 90,000 words a couple of days ago.

What have I learnt in my still-limited experience? A few things that I wish I had known at the start of the process actually:

  1. Write every single day, without exception. I started off by aiming to write 1000 words five days a week with two ‘rest’ days. What I found though was that after my days off it took a lot of effort to get back into it and into the mood of writing. I lost momentum and pretty quickly resolved to write, even though a fewer words, every day without fail.
  2. That initial feeling of ‘I can’t write a novel’ dissipated so quickly once I got into the flow; I’d say the 20,000-word mark was when I realised I wouldn’t be giving up and would, at least at the time of writing this, make it to the end of the first draft.
  3. Don’t worry when you get stuck on a detail. Leave a placeholder for it and keep going—those things can be worked out in subsequent drafts, not when you’re writing freely in the first draft. Just get it written.
  4. Aeon Timeline is an app for creating timelines and keeping all your characters, locations and story arcs clear. It really helped me towards the end of the first draft to make clear where everthing fit in the plot. I’m sure I’ll be using it a lot when it comes to the second draft—I just wish I’d heard about it earlier on.
  5. Plan but don’t follow it rigidly. So many times the characters took control of my story and took it in unexpected directions; and that’s alright. I am positive they haven’t finished guiding the novel yet either—there’s still a long way to go.

So I’m having a little break now for a couple of weeks and trying to put my focus onto other projects, hoping that when I come back to the novel I will be able to see it again with fresh eyes.

The next step? The dreaded first read through where (from what I’ve heard) every writer realises how far they have to go to finish their novel.