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Wednesday, 7 January 2009

J.G. Ballard and Jack Birns

I read J.G. Ballard's autobiography, Miracles of Life , last week. He talks about his childhood in Shanghai before the war, where the brutality of the times was evident even to a seven-year-old. He writes:

"Given the harsh facts of existence on the streets of Shanghai, and the famine, floods and endless civil war that had ravaged their villages, the servants may have been reasonably content, aware that thousands of destitute Chinese roamed the streets of Shanghai, ready to do anything to find work. Every morning I would notice fresh coffins left by the roadside, sometimes miniature coffins decked with paper flowers containing children of my own age. Bodies lay in the streets of downtown Shanghai, wept over by Chinese peasant women, ignored in the rush of passers-by. Once, when my father took me to his office in the Szechuan Road, near the Bund, a Chinese family had spent the night huddling against the steel grille at the top of the entrance steps. They had been driven away by the security guards, leaving a dead baby against the grille, its life ended by disease or the fierce cold. In the Bubbling Well Road our car had to halt when the rickshaw coolie in front of us suddenly stopped, lowered his cotton trousers and leant forward over his shafts, defecating a torrent of yellow liquid at the roadside, to be stepped in by the passing crowds and carried all over Shanghai, bearing dysentery or cholera into every factory, shop and office."

Ballard was interned with his family in Lunghua Camp - and this became the basis for his book and the Spielberg film of the same name, Empire of the Sun. Ballard reminded me of Jack Birns post-war work on Shanghai, when the Nationalists were holding out against the eventual Communist victory. Sadly, Birns died last year (read his obituary here), but his pictures live on, especially in his book Assignment Shanghai. They're not all as brutal as this, but these fit the Ballard book perfectly.

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