Saturday, 24 July 2010


Thanks to God is Not Elsewhere for the image.

There is no life any more, is there?

Having just finished Burmese Days by Orwell and then Miracles of Life by JG Ballard (interesting I think that some people I talk to are less than impressed by his writing, though I suspect this is at least in part due to an anti sci fi prejudice) I realise that some of the great British writers of the 20th Century lived full and interesting lives, seeing much of the world and - for good or ill - soaking up experiences. This is something which seems to be denied to us now, even with cheap air travel and television, and I can't help but feel a sense of loss about that, there's no denying it. Will Self (to cite what I believe is the closest relation to these greats writing today) has I think chosen to travel in the internal world - especially when on a jet with the PM - for inspiration.

Although both Eric and Jim (the former in Burma - as was - and the latter in Shanghai - as was, and seemingly will forever be, despite the Mao intermission) were cloistered in the strange unreality of life in the British Empire, with its detachment from local customs and its protection for those lucky enough to have been born in West Bromwich or Bradford, both were very obviously shaped - in terms of their art - by the 'native' people they observed.

It was by chance that I picked both of these books from the library at the same time, and yet there are many fascinating synergies and echoes between them, though one is a 'pure' autobiography (unlike Emperor of The Sun) and the other only draws on personal experience.

[SPOILER ALERT - if you fancy reading Burmese Days (and I heartily recommend it) skip the next bit]

For Orwell, the transition of power from the British Empire is symbolised by the slow and painful destruction - even unto death - of the main character, spineless specimen though he is. His 'enemy' among the Burmans (Orwell's word) meanwhile, who plays an active part in heaping the opprobrium on the pukka sahib's head, is elevated and crowned with laurels in the closing pages. The Establishment, though struggling on, has been irrevocably changed.


Ballard (who BTW mentions reading Orwell as a young man) is more specific in detailing how his work is shaped by the horrendous suffering and - to say the least - undignified deaths of so many indigenous people in WWII era China when he grew up in Shanghai's International Settlement as the Zeros flew overhead and Bushido was followed by the Japanese conquerors. He relates - in this spare yet incredibly moving close-to-death memoir - how he has perhaps unconsciously striven to elucidate the absorption of so much casual suffering and murder through his incredible body of work, as well as through his remarkable journey through life.

I have been greatly enriched by these two marvellous books.

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