James Graham Ballard was born and reared in Shanghai, China, where his father—originally an industrial chemist—was involved in the management of the Far East branch of a British firm of textile manufacturers. The Second Sino-Japanese War had begun, and Shanghai was effectively a war zone by the time Ballard was seven years old; all of his early life was affected by the ever-nearness of war. After Japan’s entry into World War II and its invasion of Shanghai, Ballard was interned in a prisoner-of-war camp. This was in the summer of 1942, when he was eleven; he was there for more than three years.
Ballard later said that his experience of the internment camp was “not unpleasant”—it was simply a fact of life that, as a child, he accepted. Children were not generally mistreated by the guards, and the adults made sure that the children were adequately fed, even at their own expense. He later observed that his parents must have found the regime extremely harsh. Although his family members were among the fortunate few who avoided malaria, his sister nearly died of a form of dysentery.
After his release, Ballard went to England in 1946. His family stayed in the Far East for a while, and his father did not return until 1950, when he was driven out of China by the Communist victory. Ballard recalled that after spending his early years in “Americanized” Shanghai, England seemed very strange and foreign. He went to Leys’ School in Cambridge for a while, then went to King’s College, Cambridge, to study medicine. His ultimate aim at this time was to become a psychiatrist. At Cambridge he began writing, initially intending to maintain the activity as a hobby while he was qualifying. In fact, he dropped out of his course after two years and subsequently went to London University to read English. The university seems to have found him unsuitable for such a course, and he left after his first year.
He then embarked on a series of short-term jobs,...
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