From The Independent, 16 December 1991, apparently part of a series titled "The Worst of Times". So, of course, JG Ballard does not describe Lunghua but rants about post-war England...
People seethed with a sort of repressed rage
JG Ballard talks to Danny Danziger
I was born in Shanghai in 1930 and brought up there by my English parents. I spent the war in a Japanese civilian camp, all of which I describe in my novel "Empire of the Sun".
I came to England in 1946. My father stayed on in China so I was travelling with my mother and younger sister. I remember standing at the rail of the converted troop ship that brought us back from China, looking down at the port of Southampton as we moored against the dock. I was amazed - I genuinely thought we had come to the wrong country.
I had an impression of England, which I had drawn from my childhood reading, of a sunlit, semi-rural land with beautiful rolling meadows and village greens and ivy-clad rectories, a land almost entirely middle class. Everything was much greyer and grimmer and darker and colder than I had been led to believe, there were no village greens and no cheerful Constable skies as I looked down on the backstreets of Southampton under a low grey sky. Even the sun seemed to be grey, and it rained perpetually; I'd come from a hot climate where the sun shone, and there is every difference between the semi-tropical rain in Shanghai and the kind of rain that fell on Southampton in 1946.
Shanghai had been a cross between Las Vegas and ancient Rome, full of American cars and American exuberance -- and I remember looking down from the ship at a country that was so poor and so spartan. I had never seen an English car, and the docks were lined with what looked like little black mobile coal scuttles.
We took the train from Southampton to London, and I remember travelling across London and seeing this total devastation -- I mean hundreds of acres of the city had been levelled to the ground, the whole place had a shattered look. And everyone looked small and tired and white-faced and badly nourished, they looked like people who had suffered a particularly ugly enemy occupation. The British I met talked as if they had won the war but acted as if they had lost it.
We then travelled to Birmingham where my mother's parents lived, and one never saw the sun, and every chimneypot belched out clouds of coal smoke. People were obsessed with their tiny butter ration and the tiny portion of stewing steak they were allowed each week. I had spent three years in a Japanese camp, so I could cope with the physical deprivation, but the psychological deprivation from which the English suffered unsettled me far more.
Within about a year my father came back on a brief trip, and he took us on a motoring holiday though France and Italy in the spring of '47. I remember being amazed by the abundance that one found in France -- there was no rationing and people looked more confident, lives were brighter and more cheerful.
Those early years were totally dislocating. I found the English attitudes towards the world utterly incomprehensible. The whole country seemed at complete variance with its situation. Everyone believed that Britain was still a world power ruling a world empire, and we had an obligation to maintain large forces at every point of the atlas. Even in the Sixties, people were still debating whether Britain should maintain forces east of Suez.
Everyone believed in a kind of social harmony, which was sentimentalised in Ealing comedies - whereas the reality was that the country was harshly divided between the have-nots, who were basically the working class, and the middle class, who weren't exactly the haves but they had just a little bit more.
I found their mind-set completely mysterious. All these middle-class people, my parent's friends and relations and the like, were seething with a sort of repressed rage at the world around them. And what they were raging against was the post-war Labour government. It was impossible to have any kind of dialogue about the rights and wrongs of the National Health Service, which was about to come in, they talked as if this Labour government was an occupying power, that the Bolsheviks had arrived and were to strip them of everything they owned.
There was enormous resistance to change. Everyone clung to this narrow band of state-controlled programming, the Home Service and the Light Programme, whose main task seemed to be to maintain all the myths about England's importance.
There was a lack of belief in enterprise, it was very difficult to spend more than a few days abroad because you weren't allowed to take more than £100. All this seemed to be a kind of Eastern European approach to things. I can remember people being hostile to the first supermarkets, and defending the little corner shop with its stale pieces of bacon and cheese exposed to any passing breath. People were hostile to the first motorway, there was a tremendous amount of debate about the M1, whether it should even be built; there was a feeling that mobility wasn't a good thing, that getting from A to B as quickly as possible was rather unBritish.
The upshot of all this was that I felt a complete outsider and never really integrated into English life until I got married in the mid-Fifties, and had my children, and began to put down roots. Curiously, now that my children have grown up, I feel a sense of strangeness coming on again.
It wasn't until the early Sixties that prosperity in any sense came to this country. Middle-class people used to sneer at the working class with their washing machines and their Cortinas, and the consumer-goods society that was targeted at the working-class population. But in fact those washing machines and second-hand Cortinas transformed this country for the better. The consumer society that came into existence and provided the engine of affluence for the Sixties, was the best thing that ever happened to this country; it liberated us in all sorts of ways, and helped to break down the class barriers.
I admire the English very much, I think they are a remarkable people. They are pugnacious and very fair-minded at the same time, they have a great civic sense, they take responsibility for each other, and I think there is a strain of kindliness in the English that is quite rare. There is a great respect for eccentricity, for the individual.
One doesn't want to sentimentalise these things, but they are part of the fabric of English life and they are admirable. It is sad that these admirable qualities are strait-jacketed into a class system that doesn't really give them full expression. The English cling to that strait-jacket, they are happy wearing it, now and then they pull down one or two zips and breathe a bit more deeply, but they are quite capable of pulling the zips up again.