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The Best Pound I Ever Spent

Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography

Placed on the wrong shelf in my local bookshop, Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography was wedged in-between cookery books. The red sticker on the front showed it to be reduced down to a mere pound as it sat on the other side of the store from the sale section where it had obviously come from. The shiny new pound coin that sat in the bottom of my purse had found its calling.

In the past two years, I have challenged myself to read a multitude of books, poems, and other prose that I wouldn't ordinarily pick up. This was one of those moments.

The cover was unassuming and I hadn't heard of the author J.G Ballard before — though I later realised that I knew more about him than I had initially realised; but I’ll admit that the quotations amongst the blurb swayed me to make the purchase, specifically:

"Exquisitely written … ‘Miracles of Life’, a subtle, restlessly enquiring work of touching humanity, is Ballard’s crowning achievement" (Financial Times).

Very quickly, the book became one that I couldn't put down unless it was to pick up my coffee.

It starts in 1930 and ends in 2007. In this time, Ballard takes the reader on a journey where the harrowing and the joyful take constant turns and weave into one another seamlessly. From a house that sounded like a dream, to a camp that sounded far from one. And like many young boys, Ballard adventured his surroundings both prior and during his time in the camp. It is to no surprise that this young boy grew up to use his imagination and create works that oftentimes fit into the post-apocalyptic dystopian setting.

The book continues to look at his experiences throughout the Japanese invasion, the Lunghua Camp where he lived for some years, American air-raids, the end of the war; alongside a multitude of other happenings beyond his adolescence.

There is a subtle humour that stems from Ballard’s experience of moving to England with his mother and younger sister. A difference in culture and family dynamics, soon leading him to Cambridge where he began to study medicine. His somewhat short-lived experiences dissecting cadavers was an interesting, somewhat nostalgic resemblance to his earlier days witnessing an array of wartime incidents. He later, and again only briefly studied English at Queen Mary College and spent time with the RAF where he wrote Passport to Eternity.

Ballard's own time at university was written with the honesty one craves from an autobiography. His experience is one that I shared in part and the chapters that surrounded this area in his life were by far my favourite; written in a way that I have felt, and yet haven't been able to put into such eloquent, or even understandable sentences. Surprisingly to me, it’s where I realised the large influence that the wider arts had on Ballard. In a book that was somewhat heavy with history and politics, the arts flooded pages that made me forget where this book started out. 

Ballard looks back at his past in a way that feels less autobiographical or egotistical than what many autobiographies tend to feel like. It doesn't feel embellished, but more so, it feels well written. There's a passion in his writing that doesn't feel forced and doesn't use nonessential frilly language.

The book inadvertently teaches you, or at least it taught me, about resilience and perhaps down to the innocence of a child who didn’t know anything different; but regardless, the power of the human psyche shines through.

It teaches in part, a piece of history that I have only heard snippets of. It’s a rare insight through the eyes of a boy who grew up very quickly, whether by nature or nurture—it’s hard to tell.

I didn't expect to pick up a book that would change my life, and it would be somewhat dishonest to say that it did. But what this book did do, was leave an imprint that I know will last me a lifetime. It's a book I hope to revisit and learn from, and one that regardless, was thrilling to read.

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