Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Spelunking 20C with Mad Guides

Courtesy of Shanghaiist, a hilarious recap of the obsessive search of Canadian author and mAdman Rick McGrath for all things Ballardian:

The Shanghai Ballard-osphere
By Andy Best

Take a walk down Panyu (Fanyu) Lu from the Film Art Centre and you will soon pass by the SH508 restaurant. It occupies a slaughtered renovated colonial mansion adorned with a huge neon sign. Unknown to the proprietors, reviewers and most of the customers, this is actually the former family home of British writer J.G. Ballard.


Ballard’s father ran a sweatshop factory in Shanghai and enjoyed the highlife of villas, health clubs and horse racing. Born in 1930, Jim Ballard was left to the care of indifferent servants. He used his relative freedom to explore the city by bicycle, seeing local Chinese starving to death on the glitzy foreign streets. Once Japan invaded in full, his family was interned at the infamous Longhua Camp, now Shanghai Zhongxue.

Canadian Rick McGrath has the largest collection of Ballard first editions in the world. His brilliant online catalogue – The Terminal Collection – is one of the two best Ballard sites available, the other being Simon Sellars’ Ballardian.com. McGrath heard that the Shanghai house was still standing and obtained a letter from Ballard himself. The letter contained a map which allowed him to confirm the location using Google Earth. A pilgrimage was on the cards.

Shanghaiist met McGrath for a stroll around the lanes of old Amherst Road (Xinhua Lu) and finished with dinner at the house itself. McGrath’s stories are great, including the time he couldn’t pass up on visiting Ballard despite a general request for no visits at the time:

“They call it doorstepping. It’s probably stalking. My bad.”

Despite McGrath’s obvious elation at finally making it to the site, he admitted that the Chinese are under no obligation to preserve sites from bitter days of occupation and that all things pass. Ballard himself wrote in the letter that the places are gone in the old sense and commented of the house “a restaurant? Great, better make it a McDonald’s or a KFC.” He also sabotaged his own knighthood, calling it a ridiculous gesture to a non-existent empire.


Photo shows Rick McGrath in front of the old Ballard house.

For a fuller, and completely hilarious, recap, check out Rick's complete travelogue.

(And for even better time travel, sample Rick's collection of his rock star interviews from the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, The Times reports on the sad circumstances leading to Ballard's writing of the latest version of his own story. "Miracles of Life."

"Ballard is courteous and genial in a slightly donnish way. At 77, he takes his time assembling his thoughts, but they remain unflinching and provocative, expressed with the verbal tics of his colonial background. But time, the malleable stuff of his science fiction, is running out. After being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in 2006, he sat down at his electric typewriter – “The computer age came too late for me” – and rapidly wrote his autobiography."

Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, of course, were fictions. Whereas The Atrocity Exhibition was a work of journalism. Where this will fall on that continuum? You can find out next week by ordering your copy here.

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