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J G Ballard's Pen


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#1 mucephei

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Posted 13 August 2010 - 22:29

J G Ballard, the author of "Empire of the Sun", "Crash", "Super-Cannes" and many other novels and short stories, is my favourite author. I knew a while back that he used a pen to write his first drafts, and he was notorious for eschewing computers to write:

JG Ballard - Writers' Rooms

Now that his papers have been donated to the British Library in London, we now have the evidence of his working practices. In a radio interview on the day selected items from the archive were put on display at the BL, his daughter Fay specifically mentioned that he used a Parker fountain pen to write his first drafts. Here is a picture of the first page of "Crash" showing the handwritten revisions:

Posted Image

More about the donation here:

British Library

Looking at the sample page above it appears to me that he favoured a fine nib and the blue ink is most likely Quink Royal Blue with Solv-X, though I'd be interested to read what others with more knowledge of 1960s/70s-era inks think. (Quink was commonly available in England at the time.) Exactly what his pen was, I wouldn't know other than that it or they were made by Parker. I'd like to think he used a Parker "51" purchased when he was stationed in Canada with the Royal Air Force, but knowing that he was not-at-all materialistic, it would be more likely he used a lower-spec pen model such as a Slimfold. Anyone here have more information on this?
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#2 mucephei

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Posted 13 August 2010 - 22:34

I forgot to mention, that now I've switched to using (non-vintage) Quink Blue in my pens in honour of JGB - it's even displaced my other favourite ink, Waterman South Seas Blue. I'll probably get a bottle of the vintage stuff soon. With Solv-X, obviously.
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#3 mucephei

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Posted 09 April 2012 - 12:58

I bought three bottles of NOS Quink Permanent Blue with Solv-X, but it's not the colour in the scan above. Permanent Blue is darker, closer to Pelikan Blue-Black.

I now think that JGB used Quink Washable Royal Blue, but I do not have a sample handy to try it out. Pelikan Royal Blue isn't far off, however, so I am using that instead.
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#4 beak

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Posted 09 April 2012 - 13:15

Interesting - thanks. I have no knowledge of the tools or materials, just amazed that he didn't have his drafts typed with double line spacing - fancy being given that to retype!
Sincerely, beak. God does not work in mysterious ways – he works in ways that are indistinguishable from his non-existence.

#5 Bogon07

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Posted 10 April 2012 - 02:32

Mucephei, J.G.Ballard is my favourite auther too.
It is amazing to see the amount of alterations on a single page. I had never given much thought to his writing process before now nor what type of pen he would have used.
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#6 Jerome Tarshis

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Posted 10 April 2012 - 09:37

I knew Ballard during the 1970s, having done an article about him for the American literary magazine Evergreen Review in 1971. They didn't publish it until 1973, because after reading my piece they decided to acquire his book The Atrocity Exhibition for their book-publishing side, Grove Press, and they thought it would be incestuous or at least not maximally advantageous if the magazine published an article at the same time as Grove were publishing the book. In the end I didn't place the article elsewhere and Evergreen published my piece.

Getting back to the subject of Ballard's fountain pen, I never saw him write with one, nor did I watch him typing, but let me come out in favor of a Parker 51 rather than an Aerometric Duofold, of which the smallest was the Slimfold. Ballard grew up in Shanghai, where he saw both American and English businessmen, and found the English to be almost American in their enterprising spirit. He admired that. He liked at least the idea of largeness. When he was repatriated after the war, he found England an enormously diminished country by comparison with the foreign community in Shanghai, the English of the home country unenterprising and second-rate, nothing at all like Americans in openness and optimism. For him America was a great fantasy land. At the time I knew him he had never visited the United States and seemed perhaps unlikely ever to do it, to keep his fantasy unsullied by facts. For those reasons I should think he would have preferred the 51 to the second-rank Duofold line and certainly to a Slimfold. (N.B. I like Aerometric Duofolds.)

I should add that I exchange letters with an Englishman who grew up in South America and when repatriated to go to boarding school in 1950 had much the same reaction as Ballard's, that the English abroad, such as his father, had larger perspectives on what was possible than the English at home did. Not a 51 user, though. About FPs his position is that nowadays one has less and less occasion to write by hand; if he needs to do it, which doesn't happen much, he likes a fiber-tipped pen.

#7 mucephei

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Posted 10 April 2012 - 12:33

Jerome - thanks for your post, very interesting! Ballard must have been a fascinating interviewee, especially in the early 70s.

I should have added, that I found a Swedish film about JGB on Youtube here . There are some interior shots of his house in Shepperton, and there is a shot of his desk. Briefly you can see what looks like a Parker Flighter of some kind, perhaps a "51" or a 45.
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#8 David Pringle

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Posted 28 November 2012 - 18:33

It's most interesting to read Jerome Tarshis's recollections of Ballard. I remember his Evergreen Review piece well, which I discovered and read some years after its publication -- I think in the late 1970s (in fact, I believe it was JGB's then-agent, the late John Wolfers, whom I first visited in his London office in 1978, who gave me a copy of that issue of Evergreen).

Mr Tarshis is slightly wrong, though, to say that JGB had "never" visited the USA at the time he knew him. When he was posted to Canada with the Royal Air Force in 1954-1955, Ballard dipped into the States once or twice -- upstate New York and such; but it's true that he never visited New York City, Chicago, Miami, LA, San Francisco or any of the major US cities until he made a couple of visits because of the film Empire of the Sun in 1987-1988 (and then he never went back after that).

#9 David Pringle

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Posted 28 November 2012 - 18:45

Actually, I do have a pen anecdote involving Ballard, which seems to confirm he used a Parker. It's in John Baxter's biography of Ballard which appeared just over a year ago and which, sadly, is a bad book--Baxter is not, generally speaking, a reliable source; but, still, here it is. The lady referred to is the American science-fiction writer, critic and anthologist Judith Merril...

"On her last visit to Shepperton, Merril pocketed as a souvenir Ballard's Parker fountain pen. It had no intrinsic value, only a symbolic one as a relic from life with Mary. Forty years later, he'd still be writing letters with it. Once he discovered the loss, Jim pursued her urgently, eventually arriving at Waterloo station as she boarded the boat train to Southampton. Having wrongly assumed he'd come to see her off, Merril handed over the pen with poor grace."

(John Baxter, The Inner Man: The Life of J. G. Ballard, 2011, Chapter 27.)

My guess is that Baxter would have got that anecdote from Michael Moorcock -- a major source for a lot of the anecdotes and gossip in the biography. The date of the event would have been about 1966, when Merril visited Britain.

#10 Jerome Tarshis

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Posted 28 November 2012 - 20:44

First, I am delighted that FPN has had at least a couple of fleeting visits from David Pringle. I've read, with much approbation, at least some of his writing about Ballard. And for that matter I have happy memories of John Wolfers and his wife, Charlotte. It was their suggestion that led to my writing some pieces for the art magazine Studio International. Can't say John negotiated a contract for me; can say he thought it might be a good idea to look in on their offices and see how well I got on.

I doubt that Ballard told me he had never set foot in the United States. I suspect that it was something in the air during the latter Sixties and the early Seventies, as a kind of cheap irony: he wrote all those stories with Cape Canaveral-like or Bikini-like settings, his imagined beach colony Vermilion Sands could easily have been in the United States, he obviously had an important mental relationship with American attitudes as they might be understood at a distance, and then, can you believe it? he's never been in the United States and doesn't propose ever to go.

Si non e vero e ben trovato, as an earlier-than-Ballard type of English author might have been quick to write.

Not that I wish to deplore Judy Merril now that someone has, oops, started that hare, but I ask myself whether I first read that nice little irony in one of her introductions to a Ballard piece.

I remember Michael Moorcock fondly, too, but I am not sure the Moorcock I remember would be an ideal source for the Ph.D.-dissertation type of biography. Still, there are other kinds of biography, and even the Ph.D. dissertation depends on history as told by those who have survived and expressed themselves; which leaves a great deal of knowledge lost to us.

#11 David Pringle

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Posted 29 November 2012 - 12:17

Here's a bit about Ballard and pens which I've remembered from one of his interviews. It's from 1983, just as he was finishing up his novel Empire of the Sun...

"INTERVIEWER: What are your daily working habits like?

"BALLARD: Every day, five days a week. Longhand now, it's less tiring than a typewriter. When I'm writing a novel or story I set myself a target of about seven hundred words a day, sometimes a little more. I do a first draft in longhand, then do a very careful longhand revision of the text, then type out the final manuscript. I used to type first and revise in longhand, but I find that modern fiber-tip pens are less effort than a typewriter. Perhaps I ought to try a seventeenth-century quill?"

("The Art of Fiction, LXXXV: J. G. Ballard" by Thomas Frick, Paris Review no. 94, Winter 1984/1985.)

So, ten years after Crash was published (1973), JGB had made the transition to writing his first drafts with fibre-tipped (felt-tipped?) pens. Sorry about that, folks.

#12 David Pringle

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Posted 29 November 2012 - 12:31

Thanks for the great reply from Jerome Tarshis!

I'm glad you remember John Wolfers. I met him several times around 1978-1980, and dealt with him by phone -- but I'm afraid I don't recall ever meeting Charlotte. They're both gone now.

Thanks for the bit of Italian wisdom -- yeah, a good yarn is always worth something, even if it's not 100% true.

I doubt, though that Judith Merril ever wrote that pen anecdote about herself. I think I've looked at all her anthologies over the years, and I certainly never encountered any intro of hers to a Ballard story in which she mentioned that unflattering-to-herself incident.

Moorcock's yarns about the life of Ballard are certainly worth hearing -- and, indeed, I've heard a number of them from him, well before Baxter's biography of JGB was published. I recognized quite a lot of Baxter's book as coming second-hand from Mike M. Trouble is, Mike does tend to exaggerate for comic effect, and Baxter would sometimes take things he said too po-facedly.

#13 Jerome Tarshis

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Posted 30 November 2012 - 00:39

No, no, no. Of course Judy Merril wouldn't have said in an introduction to a story by J. G. Ballard that she had, all in jest, high spirits, it wasn't really stealing, gone away with his pen. Anthologists don't write that kind of thing. People who post to Web sites, including me, will post any d--d thing.

What I meant was the little ironic factoid that Ballard had never visited the United States. That statement gained added interest for me during the 1960s, because an English writer very dear to me, Alex Atkinson, had published By Rocking-Chair Across America, an excellent parody of someone else's memoir of visiting America. Of many such memoirs.

He had not done it himself, was the premise, but he was quite capable of writing pastiche. I thought it was remarkably good pastiche and not especially worse than a number of books I had previously read by Englishmen who actually had visited the United States. Mr. Atkinson also wrote, if memory serves, By Rocking-Chair Across Russia.

On a related, equally irrelevant to Ballard subject, I remember from a book review of at least fifty years ago the cogent assertion that the ur-text of cultural anthropology is Diderot's Second Voyage of Bougainville. A fable, a work of didactic fiction, but there were fact-oriented anthropologists who thought there was in their profession quite a lot of that about. What they would have thought of Jean Baudrillard need not detain us.

#14 David Pringle

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Posted 30 November 2012 - 11:15

Jerome:

Sorry for the misunderstanding. I wasn't quite sure which of the two anecdotes you were referring to with respect to Merril. I agree it's possible she might have assumed that JGB had never been to America. She first anthologized him in 1957 ("Prima Belladonna") but didn't meet him until she first visited the UK in 1965, so during those early years she may well have made erroneous assumptions. They corresponded a number of times in those years. A Canadian friend of mine recently enquired of the national library of Canada whether the Judith Merril "fonds" they hold (which are copious) contain any Merril/Ballard letters, and was told that no, unfortunately, there is not a single one in the collection. Apparently she was scrupulous about keeping all letters to-and-from the authors she anthologized over the years, but the JGB material has gone missing. My guess is someone cherry-picked her collection before it made its way into the library.

I take your point about Diderot. Another French reference for you: in Huysmans' A Rebours there's a marvellous bit in which the protagonist decides to visit England, where he has never been. He gets as far as the rail station, I think, in Paris, and then is overcome with his mental visions of England, London, the fog, all the literary associations, etc., etc., and decides that no, he doesn't need to go to England after all -- he already has it in his head.

Were you living in Britain in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s?

#15 Jerome Tarshis

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Posted 30 November 2012 - 16:52

Hallo David. Thanks for inserting A Rebours into the, ah, discourse. Leaping back from the world of odd fictions to the lives of real if odd people, we have the assertion about the illustrator and excellent writer Edward Gorey that although his little books referred to some sort of Victorian-cum-Edwardian England, he never saw much of today's England, having gone for a visit and after seeing Bath, which might well have been more agreeable to him than, let us say, Stafford, he decided not to see the Fair Isle in its post-1945 fullness.

For that matter, and here I quote from memory, we have the American travel writer Paul Theroux, who has spent a fair amount of time in England, on why the American humorist S. J. Perelman had first relocated to England then gone back to New York: "Sid was too much an Anglophile to like England very much."

I've never lived in England but I did visit during the 1970s, for the first time in 1970. I have two lines of connection with Ballard and new wave science fiction, so called. One is that I read some of it when young, and one of my college classmates was Robert Silverberg, with whom I was then acquainted. He got himself involved with writing the newer kind of SF and knew his counterparts in England.

The other line of connection was that one of my girl friends of the 1960s, in my native New York, lived in an apartment where her upstairs neighbors included John Clute and his wife, and Tom Disch, who had not yet begun to write SF for publication. To write SF at all. He was a poet to begin with, but during the time I knew him he began writing SF of a kind and found almost instant acceptance and acclaim. Another upstairs neighbor was Pamela Zoline, a studio artist who later wrote a few knockout short stories.

All four of those people moved to England. When I first set foot in London I looked them up and found myself invited to stay, I don't know whether as a bird of passage or as a resident, at Jim Haynes's New Arts Laboratory. I didn't do it and perhaps ought to have. On the Paris side, I am pretty sure I was right to turn down George Whitman's invitation to stay at his bookshop Shakespeare & Co. That would have been a New-Englandish gulag experience, but the New Arts Lab wouldn't have been.

Best not to dwell on either What Might Have Been or what it has all come to.

In the matter of possibly wearing out one's welcome at FPN, do you think all this about the world of English cum American science fiction writers (or in the case of John Clute, editors) may perhaps have wandered too far from the subject of writing with a fountain pen? We might continue this by PM or email, although I imagine there is some saving remnant at FPN that would like to read about Moorcock as remembered forty years on, early Thomas Disch, regrets that Pam Zoline didn't make a career as a writer, and related subjects.

Edited by Jerome Tarshis, 30 November 2012 - 17:00.


#16 penrivers

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Posted 30 November 2012 - 21:11

Wow Mr. Tarshis, keep writing good english for us. Greetings from México.

#17 David Pringle

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Posted 01 December 2012 - 23:38

Thanks, Jerome, for the further long reply. So you never actually lived in England, but just visited. I'd formed the impression that maybe you'd been one of those Americans (like many of the other people you name) who flocked to London when it was swinging in the Sixties and then perhaps stayed on a bit before drifting back home in the late Seventies.

Interesting to hear that your first contact with the sf field was through Bob Silverberg. He's the most eminent presence on a Yahoogroups mailing list I set up, called Fictionmags, and so I hear from him quite frequently. The list's purpose is ostensibly to discuss magazines, especially fiction magazines, of yesteryear, but a preponderance of the people on it are sf writers, editors, or knowledgeable fans (collectors, librarians, and so on). Mostly people of a certain age, alas. You'd be welcome to join us if you'd like to. (John Clute is on there too. Tom Disch was, for a while, but you know what became of him, and so was Mike Moorcock, for a shorter while.)

So when you visited Ballard in 1971, it was an arrangement made from the States? Can you remember the date of your visit to Shepperton? If not the exact date, the month or the season? I've just re-read your Evergreen interview with him, and I'd be interested to know in more detail when you spoke.

Since you had visited England in 1970 and become acquainted with the New Arts Lab, did you perchance see Ballard's "Crashed Cars" exhibition there?

As to whether or not it's appropriate to carry on this conversation on a blog devoted to fountain pens, I don't know -- could someone else perhaps let us know?

#18 dogpoet

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Posted 02 December 2012 - 16:15

I'm certainly finding the conversation fascinating, but I'm afraid I can't speak for anybody else.
(On a more pennish note, the felt tip thing is particularly interesting: I wonder if Ballard meant those white Papermate felt tip fineliners they stopped making recently, or one of the posh refillable felt tips that went out fashion towards the end of the '90s? They used to do some really nice ones like that...)