​​​​J.G.Ballard: Blackburn Roots

8 Hardman St taken by A Duckworth.jpg​What's the link between quiet Hardman St. in Blackburn at the turn of the 19th century and dystopian, apocalyptic visions of the future, between the sleepy, sooty red brick terraces of Griffin and the 'Drowned World'; 'the Burning World;, 'the Crystal World?  What possible connection can there be between 8 Hardman St and nightmarish, films like 'Crash' and 'High Rise' and 'Empire of the Sun?'

At the time of the 1901 census, 8 Hardman St was occupied by Ernest Ballard and his wife Emma.  Ernest was a tailor's assistant and Emma worked in a cotton mill. Ernest's father had come from Wigan and his mother from Darwen.  In 1902 they had a son James.  Another son, Edward, was born in 1905. By the 1911 census, they had moved to nearby 
Agnes St.

It's the older son James who forges the link we're looking for. James was a bright pupil.  He went on to attend London University and graduated as a chemist.  He joined the Calico Printers Association who formed a subsidiary - the China Printing and Finishing Company in Shangai.  James was sent out there to help run it.  Before he left he married Edna Johnstone from West Bromwich.

The young couple enjoyed a standard of living in Shanghai far above anything they could have afforded in 1930s England. Their 3 storey house had double glazing, air conditioning and a modern kitchen with the latest electrical appliances. They had 10 servants including a chauffeur for their huge American car, a Packard. There was a thriving social life for the British community with clubs for Bridge and sport and drinking.

On 15th November 1930, the Ballards had a baby boy, James Graham – J. G. Ballard.  A daughter Margaret followed in 1937.  Also, in 1937, the Japanese invaded China.  They were to occupy China for the next 8 years with devastating consequences for the foreign communities living in Shanghai.  Young J. G. Ballard grew up amidst all this, seeing death and cruelty as an everyday occurrence.  After the war, he came to England with his mother and sister. His father stayed on trying resurrect the business.  This proved impossible under the communist Chinese, indeed he was arrested.  He managed to escape and he too returned to England.

J. G. Ballard tried various careers – medicine, the RAF, advertising, even librarianship. He began writing short stories and achieved some success as a science fiction writer, but, it was his novel 'Empire of the Sun' and the subsequent Spielberg film which brought him fame and money.  He gained a reputation as an 'infant terrible', a bad boy of modern writing, exploring the psychological impact of bleak new futures.  In appearance though, he was much like his father – he could have been the manager of a succesful textile business.

Did he ever explore his roots?  Did he ever come to Blackburn? He had an unhealthy passion for big, flashy cars.  Did he ever drive a big, pink Thunderbird round the cobbled streets of Griffin looking for the ancestral home?  Alas there's no evidence that he did.  He died on 19th April 2009.
Article and image copyright, Alan Duckworth, June 2020

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