Is that elusive thing – a contented life – easier to come by in England than in Shanghai?
Writer J.G.Ballard (British, but born and bred in Shanghai) placed post-war England and Shanghai in shocking parallel. I have copied out Ballard’s recollections below. His portrait of England and the English is deeply dispiriting; partly because, although he is describing the late 1940s and my own parents’ childhood experiences (they, too, arrived in those years to live in the UK), some of what he describes equally applies to my own childhood in the late 1960s and early ‘70s! No progress was made. And Ballard finishes up by saying there is still to this day a desperate need for a profound cultural change. We must let go of our deluded notions of Britain’s importance.
It is making me think, however challenging it may be to live here in Shanghai, I don’t know if I can face going back to the depressed, depressing UK.
Before you look at the Ballard piece, here is a photo of Shanghai today – the Bund, the pollution – plus a photo of typical 1940s England by W.F. King: a cityscape of Bradford, the hometown of Suki who is currently staying with me here in Shanghai.
Compare and contrast.
And here is JG Ballard’s 1946 account ( – having spent his final two years in Shanghai in a war-time Japanese prison camp) of his arrival at the age of 15 in England…
“…under a cold sky so grey and low that I could hardly believe this was the England I had heard and read about. Small, putty-faced people moved around, shabbily dressed and with a haunted air.
…Even allowing for a long and exhausting war, England seemed derelict, dark and half-ruined. Southampton […] had been heavily bombed during the war, and consisted largely of rubble, with few signs of human settlement. […] London and greater Birmingham, like the other main cities, had been built in the 19th century, and everything seemed to be crumbling and shabby, unpainted for years, and in many ways resembled a huge demolition site. […] A steady drizzle fell for most of the time, and the sky was slate-grey with soot lifting over the streets from tens of thousands of chimneys. Everything was dirty, and the interiors of railway carriages and buses were black with grime.
Looking at the English people around me, it was impossible to believe that they had won the war. They behaved like a defeated population. […] the English talked as if they had won the war, but acted as if they had lost it. They were clearly exhausted by the war, and expected little of the future. Everything was rationed – food, clothing, petrol – or simply unobtainable. People moved in a herd-like way, queuing for everything. Ration books and clothing coupons were all-important, endlessly counted and fussed over, even though there was almost nothing in the shops to buy. Tracking down a few light-bulbs could take all day. Everything was poorly designed – my grandparents’ three-storey house was heated by one or two single-bar electric fires and an open coal fire. Most of the house was icy, and we slept under huge eiderdowns like marooned Arctic travellers in their survival gear, a frozen air numbing our faces, the plumes of breath visible in the darkness.
More important, hope itself was rationed, and people’s spirits were bent low. The only hope came from Hollywood films, and long queues, often four abreast, formed outside the immense Odeons and Gaumonts that had survived the bombing. The people waiting in the rain for their hour or two of American glamour were docile and resigned.
“…It took a long while for this mood to lift, and food rationing went on into the 1950s. But there was always the indirect rationing of simple unavailability, and the far more dangerous rationing of any kind of belief in a better life. The whole nation seemed to be deeply depressed. Audiences sat in their damp raincoats in smoke-filled cinemas as they watched newsreels that showed the immense pomp of the royal family, the aggressively cheerful crowds at a new holiday camp, and the triumph of some new air-speed or land-speed record, as if Britain led the world in technology. It is hard to imagine how conditions could have been worse if we had lost the war.
It came to me very quickly that the England I had been brought up to believe in – A.A. Milne, Just William, Chums annuals – was a complete fantasy. The English middle class had lost its confidence. Even the relatively well-off friends of my parents – doctors, lawyers, senior managers – had a very modest standard of living, large but poorly heated homes, and a dull and very meagre diet…
For the first time, I was meeting large numbers of working-class people […]. I was amazed at how bleakly they lived, how poorly paid they were, poorly educated, housed and fed. To me they were a vast exploited workforce, not much better off than the industrial workers in Shanghai. I think it was clear to me from the start that the English class system […] was an instrument of political control, and not a picturesque social relic. Middle-class people in the late 1940s and 1950s saw the working class as almost another species, and fenced themselves off behind a complex system of social codes […] – show respect to one’s elders, never be too keen, take it on the chin, be decent to the junior ranks, defer to tradition, stand up for the national anthem, offer leadership, be modest and so on, all calculated to create a sense of overpowering deference, and certainly not qualities that made Shanghai great or, for that matter, won the Battle of Britain. Everything about English middle-class life revolved around codes of behaviour that unconsciously cultivated second-rateness and low expectations.
With its ancestor-worship and standing to attention for ‘God save the King’, England needed to be freed from itself and the delusions that people in all walks of life clung to about Britain’s place in the world. Most of the British adults I met genuinely thought that we had won the war singlehandedly, with a little help, often more of a hindrance, from the Americans and Russians. In fact we had suffered enormous losses, exhausted and impoverished ourselves, and had little more to look forward to than our nostalgia.
Should we have gone to war in 1939, given how ill-prepared we were, and how little we did to help Poland, to whose aid Neville Chamberlain had committed us when he declared war on Germany? Despite all our efforts, the loss of a great many brave lives and the destruction of our cities, Poland was rapidly overrun by the Germans and became the greatest slaughterhouse in History. Should Britain and France have waited a few years, until the Russians had broken the back of German military power? And […] would the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor if they had known that they faced not only the Americans but the French, British and Dutch armies, navies and air forces? The sight of these three colonial powers defeated or neutralised by the Germans must have tipped the balance in Japanese calculations.
In short, did the English pay a fearful price for the system of self-delusions that underpinned almost everything in their lives? The question seemed to leap from the shabby streets and bomb sites when I first came to England […] Change, I felt, was what England desperately needed, and I still feel it [in 2008].
…My grandparents […] were obsessed with the iniquity of the post-war Labour government, which they genuinely believed to have carried out a military putsch to seize control of the country, using the postal votes of millions of overseas servicemen. […] …all around them was the desperate poverty of the Black Country, with some of the most ill-housed and poorly educated people in western Europe, still giving their lives after the war to maintain an empire that had never been of the least benefit to them. My grandfather’s attitude was common, and based less on feelings of social class than on a visceral resistance to change. Change was the enemy of everything he believed in.
Excerpts from ‘Miracles of Life’, an autobiography by JG Ballard (Harper Perennial, London, 2008)
The reflection in the floor looks almost like a river flowing through the gallery. There are some amazing art spaces at M50. I would love an exhibition there.
Suki has been reading my books by JG Ballard, especially his autobiographical writings about early life in war-torn Shanghai. Her response has been to write this poem, which she has given me permission to reproduce – matched with one of my photos of Pudong’s mad skyscrapers. Like me, she can well imagine them collapsing even more quickly than they were thrown up. Remember New York’s Twin Towers..?
Stick-thin hipless bare-balconied oblong,
up top a penthouse’s smoked-glass pyramid,
at the foot topiary peacocks, a marble portico.
Its many square eyes stare down,
dark spectacles framed in chrome,
to where frogs chirrup and giggle
in a landscaped swamp among peonies,
willow, a large palm, privet cut in shapes.
On the day these blank-looking smoothed-off faces
rupture with black yowls, the day this concrete
topples into the car-parks, when girders snap
like breadsticks and cars get hammered flat,
when doors unhinge while lethal dust plumes up,
on that day these frogs will belly-flop happily
into the water pooling afresh among severed cables,
utility pipes up-ended, broken glass, detritus.
Across the trashed city these wide-lipped fat frogs
will plop goggle-eyed into water-holes, barking happily,
not squashed dead under rubble but smiling
slit-mouthed, fleshy-bottomed, belching happily
then belly-laughing in this freshly re-created world
amid the lushly-rotting corpses, succulents,
humidity, the vivid greenery.