Reading Extreme Metaphors, an impressively edited collection of interviews with JG Ballard, made me want to search out my own encounter with one of Britain's greatest novelists.
Here is an expanded (& rough) version of a piece based on a telephone interview with Ballard, prior to the publication of Rushing to Paradise (Flamingo, £14.99), published in The Journal, morning paper for the North-East of England. I presume we spoke in 1994.
JG Ballard is comfortable with obsessions, but has a deep seated mistrust of extremists.
Indeed, a volatile mix of obsessions - including nuclear warfare, the Kennedy assassination and the sexual power of motor cars - have driven his fiction for over 30 years, but it is the actions of extremists - feminists and animal rights activists - who provide the impetus for his latest novel, Rushing to Paradise.
Inspired by the charismatic Dr Barbara Rafferty an ill-assorted bunch of would-be conservationists set sail for a Pacific atoll determined to save a colony of albatross threatened by French plans to test nuclear weapons. Unlike Greenpeace, whose similar attempt was thwarted when the French secret service sank their boat, Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour, Ballard's adventurers reach their goal and appear to succeed. But, of course, there are deeper tensions; as he explains, they begin to discover Dr Barbara's hidden agenda.(1)
For her the albatross are merely the first step in a frightening search for archetypal woman in herself. It is not only birds that are slaughtered in her quest. As in Ballard's best known novel, Empire of the Sun - shortlisted for the Booker and made into a hugely successful film by Steven Spielberg - the narrative is told through the eyes of a young boy, this time a teenager called Neil.
Although aware that Dr Barbara has long since made the transition from committed campaigner to murderous zealot, he remains hypnotised by her as the story moves towards its bloody denouement.
Although he has sympathy with many of Dr Barbara's beliefs ("It is not that there are too few pandas but there are too many men") Ballard describes the book as, in part, satire: "I think it was prompted my feeling that every movement begins to devour itself after a certain time."(2)
He explains: "There is a a lunatic fringe in the animal rights movement that is prepared to plant a bomb under a laboratory technician's car in defence of a laboratory rat. Likewise there is an extreme fringe of feminism, like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon (who) are throwing the baby out with the bath water. There is a tendency for all movements to lose sight of their real targets and move into a kind of fantasy world of their own."
Ballard's own fantasy world was shaped as a child in a Japanese prison camp, an experience so awful it took half a lifetime to confront in his writing. "It is very, very unusual to wait 40 years before writing about the experience. Obviously there was some repressive mechanism that I didn't want to face. Even when I was quite an accomplished novelist I still didn't want to write about my Shanghai background."
When the war ended he returned to England, but as an outsider who had experience dreadful privations, and who has never forgotten that his life was saved by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
"There are certain sort of fundamental constants in everyone's life. In my case I can't escape my background but I have not spent my life staring into a nuclear test explosion."
He began as science fiction writer (3) - an early story has an astronaut on a far off planet trying to solve a life-threatening problem with a slide rule - but he explains: "Where I differ from most English novelists is that I don't screen out those elements of science and technology which surround us in our everyday life... There is no impression from their fiction that we live in a world created by science and technology. We live in a media landscape where nothing is true until it has been on television.
"I think we are on the threshold of enormous change, almost impossible to conceive of. Up to ten years ago one felt the huge transformation of life that took place in the 20 years after World War Two [ computers, consumer landscape, television] by the 80s it felt that everything had been invented. Everybody has personal computers and fax machines and modems and are linking into this huge Internet. When virtual reality comes along, as it probably will, one can see the effect on their lives is going to be as great as between 1945 and 1965."
Ballard says he has too little experience to tackle cyberspace himself - he writes in longhand and then types it up on an excellent electronic typewriter.
"I have been writing now for quite a lot of years - first short story published in 1956 - I think I have been remarkably faithful to to my obsessions which have tended to emerge and reappear across the years. (4)
"What I do is follow my obsessions whatever they may be and these figures that draw the central characters with them are symbols of various obsessions which I have followed all my life.
"As one gets older one does begin to see the overall patterns of life do emerge. One can begin to make sense of one's life, but not too much.
1. "This is the background to Rushing to Paradise. It describes the attempt by an animal rights group to land on a Pacific atoll which is a French nuclear testing ground which of course echoes the attempt by Greenpeace ... to land on the French nuclear testing atoll Murarowa. Recalls Rainbow Warrior.... I envisaged a group of animal rights activists successfully taking control of an abandoned atoll then beginning to uncover the hidden agenda of which many of them were unaware [except Dr Rafferty] .. she wanted to find the archetypal woman in herself..."
2. Satire/mischievous? "I hope I approached that subject with a light touch. It is a serious journey across the mind of this very strange woman. I, the author, have an enormous sympathy for Dr Rafferty. Many of the things she says and believes I believe ... not that there are too few pandas but there are too many men... (he supports her attempt to free women from their domesticated role to a more vital existence) If I disapproved of Barbara Rafferty and everything she believes in then the book would really have no point."
3. "I have not written very much science fiction for a great many years - some people, hard core science fiction [fans].. would say I never had."
Q: Rushing to Paradise, like Crash and others has a one person falling under the spell of a driven other - do you follow others?
"I am not remotely like that. What I do is follow my obsessions whatever they may be and these figures that draw the central characters with them are symbols of various obsessions which I have followed all my life. "
"(It) Starts with Atrocity Exhibition ... then the underlying emerging psychosis that I perceive with our relationship with motor cars, high rise buildings, then eventually facing my own past with Empire of the Sun and Kindness of Women. If I find myself thinking more and more about something> Rather than switch it off and think of something else I pin it down."