partly colonized rooms
June 28, 2009, 7:32 pm
Filed under: departure lounge, the sweet life | Tags: , , ,

I am reading JG Ballard’s biography Miracles of Life and highly recommend it for it’s frank tone and sweeping scope:  boyhood in Japanese occupied Shanghai – as far as I’ve gotten – education and creative output in England.

Here is an excerpt from his description of Lunghua Camp where the Ballard family was interned by the Japanese when he was a teenager.   He describes the two years as a period of  material poverty but ironically rich in social and intellectual potential.  He saw it as the beginning of a lifelong creeping alienation from his parents and of a realization that adults were not necessarily in control and chronically made bad decisions.

This excerpt however, is about the loneliness of adult life and how the prisoner of war camp – it’s cruelty and lack of provision and space – was actually much more social and lively than British peace time living.  In acts of sanity later in life, Ballard commits to resisting isolating convention in his own family’s life.  For him, private baths and wardrobes are incarnate private hopes and dreams.

But I flourished in all this intimacy, and I think the years together in that very small room had a profound effect on me and the way I brought up my own children.  Perhaps the reason why I have lived in the same Shepperton house for nearly fifty years, and to the despair of everyone have always preferred make-do-and-mend to buying anew, even when I could easily afford it, is that my small and untidy house reminds me of our family room in Lunghua.

I realize now just how formal English life could be in the 1930s, 40s and 50s for its professional families.  The children of doctors, lawyers and company directors rarely saw their fathers.  They lived in large houses where no one shared a bedroom, they never saw their parents dressing or undressing, never saw them brush their teeth or even take off a watch.  In pre-war Shanghai I would occasionally wander into my parents’ bedroom and see my mother brushing her hair, a strange and almost mysterious event.  I rarely saw my father without a jacket and tie well into the 195os.  The vistas of polished furniture turned a family home into a deserted museum, with a few partly colonised rooms where people slept alone, read and bathed alone, and hung their clothes in private wardrobes, along with their emotions, hopes and dreams.

Miracles of Life, JG Ballard, 2009, Harper Perennial

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