William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard

Tags: , , , , ,

An In-Depth Account Drawing on Interviews, Correspondence, and Unpublished Documents

J.G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs. Photograph by Mary Evans taken on the occasion of Burroughs' first exhibition at October Gallery in the UK, May 31, 1988. Courtesy of October Gallery, London. RealityStudio.org.

“I got a Christmas card from Burroughs,” J.G. Ballard told an interviewer in 1986.1 It should not have been much of a surprise: he had known William S. Burroughs for about twenty years; he had recently published an enthusiastic review of Burroughs’ essay collection, The Adding Machine; and Burroughs, contrary to expectation, tended to be meticulous about sending out holiday cards. Still, Ballard added that it was “rather nice” to receive a card, implying that he had not always been on the mailing list. In fact, the two writers were never close. Ballard was extremely generous with his praise, calling Burroughs the “Great Man” and “the most important writer in the English language” since World War II. Burroughs was respectful but less effusive, allowing that Ballard was “good” as a writer.2 “I like his work very much,” Burroughs told a Naropa workshop, “and I’ve met him.”3 Theirs was the sort of relationship, based on regard but not camaraderie, which is marked by the exchange of formalities. “I would never call myself a friend,” said Ballard, “more a long-term acquaintance.”4

Before he became an acquaintance, Ballard was an admirer. His first encounter with Burroughs’ writing was significant enough for him to recall it in print more than once. He read The Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded all in a bunch. The place for this encounter remained clear in his memory — he devoured the three Olympia Press volumes at his home in Shepperton — but the year grew hazy. Ballard gave various dates for his initial engagement with Burroughs’ books: 1959, “about 1960” and “something like 1960”, 1963.5 Given that the last of the Olympia Press tomes, The Ticket That Exploded, was not released until December 1962, Ballard must have first read Burroughs in 1963. The books were given to him by Michael Moorcock, who had discovered Naked Lunch at Le Mistral bookshop in Paris. By 1963, Moorcock and Ballard were meeting regularly for lunch at a pub called The Swan. Perhaps they noted that Burroughs, who had yet to publish a book in England, was being interviewed by the BBC and the Guardian. Eventually Moorcock asked a young friend, Maxim Jakubowski, to bring Ballard a set of the Olympia Press volumes from Paris. According to a chronology worked out by Jakubowski and Ballard expert David Pringle, it was during the first week of September 1963 that Jakubowski delivered the books to Moorcock, who passed them to Ballard.6

Naked Lunch was a “breath of fresh air” and “a tremendous high,” Moorcock recalled. “It was joyous absurdism which somehow spoke directly to me.”7 For Ballard, the book arrived at a critical moment. “It was a rather low time for me,” he remembered.

I had just started out as a writer. I hadn’t written my first novel. And this was the heyday of the naturalistic novel, dominated by people like C. P. Snow and Anthony Powell and so on, and I felt that maybe the novel had shot its bolt, that it was stagnating right across the board. The bourgeois novels, the so-called “Hampstead novels” seemed to dominate everything. Then I read this little book with a green cover, and I remember I read about four or five paragraphs and I quite involuntarily leapt from my chair and cheered out loud because I knew a great writer had appeared amidst us.8

By September 1963 Ballard had in fact written more than just a first novel. In 1961, in a desperate attempt to create a salable book, he had spent a two-week vacation cranking out 6000 words per day to produce The Wind from Nowhere. By early 1962 he had completed his next novel, The Drowned World. If Ballard misremembered the sequence of events, however, he did not forget the impact of Burroughs’ work. In 1963, he was still supporting his young family by publishing formally conventional short stories and working as an editor at a scientific journal. To encounter those little green books at this “rather low time” was electrifying. “Naked Lunch,” Ballard wrote later, “was a grenade tossed into the sherry party of English fiction.”9 He would remember being struck by the “sheer originality, humour, the unique eye, the coherence of the apocalyptic vision.”10 The uncompromising example of Burroughs may have been in the back of his mind when, at the end of 1963 or beginning of 1964, Ballard quit his editorship to focus on his own work.

Ballard was not alone in discovering Burroughs’ novels during this period. In March 1962, Naked Lunch overcame an obscenity trial to be published in America. In August 1962, Burroughs stole the headlines at the Edinburgh Writers Conference with his statements on censorship and nonlinear writing techniques. John Calder, anxious to catch the momentum but wary of legal censure in the United Kingdom, arranged to publish a hybrid book that combined cut-ups with the less obscene parts of Naked Lunch. This book, Dead Fingers Talk, was released on November 15, 1963 to immediate controversy. A savage review in the Times Literary Supplement inspired a torrid exchange of letters from literary figures including Calder, publisher Victor Gollancz, critic Eric Mottram, and Dame Edith Sitwell, who proclaimed that she did not wish to have her “nose nailed to other people’s lavatories.” Moorcock contributed to the dialogue with a letter published in the TLS on November 21. Citing a passage in Naked Lunch (“‘So what you want off me?’ ‘Time…'”), Moorcock hailed Burroughs as “one of the first real writers of SF”:

I suppose a moral message can be read into Burroughs’ work, but this is not its prime concern. Just as modern physics approaches the metaphysical with each new advancement, so is Burroughs concerned with Space and Time, its nature, its philosophical implications, the place of the individual in the total universe.11

Moorcock’s letter also mentioned The Drowned World — the first public, or at least prominent, comparison of Burroughs and Ballard. Ironically, The Drowned World might well have been the reason Ballard did not offer his own defense of Burroughs. Victor Gollancz, vituperative in his criticism of Dead Fingers Talk, had published what Ballard called his “first serious novel” and taken him to a celebratory lunch. For practical reasons, Ballard would not have wanted to sour this promising relationship with an important publisher. Once the ruckus subsided, however, he did offer a wry comment on Sitwell’s disgust: “Some lavatory, some nose.”12

An Exchange of Letters

The UGH! affair, as the epistolary skirmish in the TLS came to be known, put Burroughs in contact with a range of admirers. On December 18, 1963 Burroughs wrote a thank-you note to Moorcock, adding “I do not know exactly what is meant by a moral message but I certainly do intend to sound an urgent word of warning relative to rather obvious pre-nova conditions.”13 Around January 1964 Burroughs made his first contribution to Jeff Nuttall’s My Own Mag. In February, he received a letter from a writer who would soon become important in Ballard’s life. Martin Bax, whom Ballard would not meet until 1965, invited Burroughs to contribute to his literary magazine Ambit. Burroughs responded with a three-column cut-up titled, perhaps with Nuttall in mind, “Martin’s Mag.” He described his intentions in an accompanying letter which he encouraged Bax to publish “as a note of explanation.”

I enclose an unpublished page representative of recent experiments in which I extend the newspaper format to fictional material as if I were reporting news. Presentation in columns enables the writer to run three or more streams of narrative concurrently with possibilities of counterpoint contrast and change of temp not offered by the book page. […] I hope that writers may be led to experiment with format and the effects of format on the reading process beyond the limitations of a book page left to right down and over. (What a salutary shock to see words running from right to left on an English page). It is time for writers to break up an unsanitary relationship with a dead typewriter in an empty room.14

Ambit 20The text was published later that year in issue 20 of Ambit. That Bax’s magazine was already publishing Burroughs was likely one of the incentives for Ballard to join the masthead as prose editor a few years later.

The week after Burroughs replied to Bax, Moorcock became the editor of New Worlds magazine, an established but flagging franchise that would be revitalized under his stewardship. As Moorcock scrambled to prepare his first issue, Eric Mottram discovered that the BBC possessed tapes of Burroughs reading and discussing his work. Mottram took these tapes and rebroadcast them with his own commentary on March 9, 1964.15 Moorcock and Ballard must have heard Burroughs declare on the radio that he was “writing for cosmonauts of inner space” and “attempting to create a new mythology for the space age.” That month, both of them wrote letters to Burroughs in Tangiers. For his first issue of New Worlds, May/June 1964, Moorcock penned an editorial referencing the “recent BBC broadcast” and touting Burroughs as “the first SF writer” to invent “a new literature for the Space Age.” He also asked Ballard to prepare an essay. Ballard took advantage of the opportunity to introduce himself with a letter which can be partly reconstructed from Burroughs’ reply.16

March 23, 1964
4 Calle Larachi Marshan
Tangier, Morocco

Dear Mr. Ballard:

Thank you for your letter. I was interested to learn that J. Conrad and J. Joyce received unfavorable notice in the TLS. I have always felt that Conrad is vastly underestimated dismissed with the classification ‘old fashioned’ and Joyce of course receives the ‘great writer nobody can read’ treatment. Have you ever read Conrad’s ‘Romance’ which he wrote in collaboration with Ford Maddox Ford? I think it is one of the greatest science fiction stories ever written and now out of print.

I have been in correspondence with Mr. Moorcock who has told me something of your science fiction writing — ‘The Drowned World’ (‘The Four Dimensional Nightmare’). I will order these books with the English book store here if you can let me know the publisher. Your concept of a lost sacral brain is a most interesting one that should provide excellent material for a work of science fiction.

I am planning a trip to London in September and hope that we can arrange to meet at that time.

Best Wishes
William Burroughs

Ballard had consoled Burroughs about the UGH! scandal with flattering comparisons to James Joyce, whom he had emulated in his early experimental work, and Joseph Conrad — an author very much on Ballard’s mind since, at lunch, Gollancz had stunned him with the allegation that The Drowned World had been derived from Conrad, whom Ballard had not yet read.

In addition to offering his consolations about the TLS, Ballard must have felt the need to engage Burroughs with a more striking idea or observation. Years later he would admit to an interviewer that, when speaking with Burroughs, “I steer the conversation towards those things that I know interest him.”17 The notion of a “lost sacral brain” was the first such effort. Perhaps Ballard had noticed the frequency with which The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded refer to the spine, a phrase such as “memory hit spine outside 1920 movie theater” causing him to recall the hypothesis that dinosaurs possessed a “sacral brain.” The nineteenth century paleontologist Wilhelm von Branca had even suggested that “in man there appear still to be traces of this” cerebral matter in the spinal column.18 Had Ballard stumbled across the notion while researching The Drowned World? In a 1968 interview, he used the sacral brain as a model to describe the entire novel:

In The Drowned World I describe the return of the entire planet to the era of the great Triassic forests, which covered the earth some 200 million years ago. I tell how human beings likewise regress into the past. In a certain sense, they climb down their own spinal column. They traverse down the thoracic vertebrae, from the point at which they are air-breathing mammals, to the lumbar region, to the point at which they are amphibious reptiles. I use this portrait of the spinal column as a vessel containing a reflection of the memory of the past […] as a literary device.19

That Burroughs, always intrigued by offbeat ideas, responded positively to the notion and to the correspondence must have gratified Ballard immensely. A note from his wife Mary to his sister Margaret registered, on April 2, 1964, that Ballard had received “a letter from the writer William Burroughs from Tangier[s].”20 The fact that this was newsworthy gives a good indication of the increasing renown of Burroughs and the esteem Ballard must have expressed for him even en famille. It also hints at the asymmetry that was to remain in the writers’ relationship, in which Burroughs was clearly the senior partner. Ian Sommerville, living with Burroughs in Morocco, did not write to his family about receiving mail from Ballard.

New Worlds, May/June 1964Burroughs’ letter gave impetus to “Myth Maker of the Twentieth Century,” the essay Ballard submitted to Moorcock for the May/June 1964 issue of New Worlds. In his first published statement about Burroughs, Ballard focused on Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded. To choose these three books was not self-evident. Nova Express had not yet been published, and Ballard may not have realized that Junkie, published pseudonymously, had been written by Burroughs. But what about Dead Fingers Talk? New Worlds presented “Myth Maker” as a review of the book that stirred up the UGH! scandal, but Ballard said nothing of it except that the earlier novels had been “re-worked to form the basis of Dead Fingers Talk.” Perhaps he felt the scandal had already been overplayed, or he hesitated to defend a book which his publisher found repugnant. Ballard may also have been offering a subtle judgement on Dead Fingers Talk, as though to say that it was a compromised presentation of texts whose real and pungent versions were to be found in the little green tomes of Olympia Press. Putting the nail in the coffin, Ballard deleted any mention of Dead Fingers Talk when he collected this “review” years later in A User’s Guide to the Millennium.

Like Ballard’s lost letter, “Myth Maker of the Twentieth Century” invokes Joyce and Conrad, contending that Burroughs takes up where Finnegans Wake left off. It echoes the idea, offered by Burroughs and repeated by both Mottram and Moorcock, that the cut-up novels constitute “the authentic mythology of the age of Cape Canaveral, Hiroshima and Belsen.” But the real goal of Ballard’s essay was to characterize Burroughs as a writer of “inner space,” a notion Ballard practically trademarked by promoting it so eloquently. Burroughs’ writing, Ballard argued, furnishes “the first portrait of the inner landscape of the post-war world, using its own language and manipulative techniques, its own fantasies and nightmares.” Burroughs himself attributed the concept of “inner space” to Alex Trocchi, who used the term at the Edinburgh Writers Conference in August 1962.21 Ballard, however, had already published his essay “Which Way to Inner Space” in the May 1962 issue of New Worlds. Did Trocchi get the idea from Ballard? Did Ballard, as biographer John Baxter alleges, get the idea from J.B. Priestley’s 1953 essay “They Come from Inner Space?”22 Or was it simply in the air, an obvious counterpoint to the headlines about outer space? In any event, “inner space” was a point of intersection between the writers, and Ballard must have been pleased to hear Burroughs advocating a position he had already staked out.

Burroughs was enthusiastic about this new writer who had sent him the letter and the flattering essay. On May 1, 1964, he sent Jeff Nuttall a list of names that should receive review copies of My Own Mag.23 Topping the list were Moorcock, Ballard, and Anthony Burgess. Later that summer, on August 15, Burroughs replied to a few interview questions mailed to him by Ramsey Campbell, whose first story collection was put out that year by Arkham House, the publisher long associated with H.P. Lovecraft.

the science fiction writers who have most influenced me are H.G. Wells still one of the best C.S. Lewis interesting that in his obituaries no mention is made of his science fiction work. Recently I have been in touch with J.G. Ballard and Mike Moorcock who sent me New Worlds SF May June Vol 48 no 142. I enjoyed Ballard’s Equinox and the Star Virus by B.J. Bayley I thought Bayley was really first rate. Do you know this Bayley? I understand Bayley is a pen name.24

“Equinox,” the cover story for the same issue of New Worlds containing “Myth Maker of the Twentieth Century,” was an early version of Ballard’s fourth novel, The Crystal World. However, it made less of an impression than Barrington J. Bayley’s story. Burroughs borrowed the concept of “deadliners” from “Star Virus” for the revised edition of The Ticket That Exploded (which, while crediting him, mangled the title of New Worlds and the spelling of Bayley’s name). And it was deadliners, not Ballard’s story or essay, that would stand out in Burroughs’ memory. On September 10, 1964, Burroughs wrote to Antony Balch to recommend potential reviewers for an early cut of the film Towers Open Fire. “I nominate J.G. Ballard editor of the magasine in which the deadliners appear or was Mike Moorcock the editor they would both be interested and such a gathering might well lead to scene.”25

The scene was not yet destined to take place. Though he had offered in his March letter to meet Ballard in London in September 1964, Burroughs remained in Tangiers. Ballard, meanwhile, was vacationing in Spain with his family. His wife Mary, perhaps not fully recovered from an earlier bout of appendicitis, contracted a severe pneumonia. Just three days after Burroughs advised Balch to send rushes of Towers Open Fire to Ballard and Moorcock, Mary passed away. By the time a grieving Ballard returned to Shepperton with his children, it is doubtful he would have been in the frame of mind for a meeting. The death “unhinged” Ballard, as colleague Brain Aldiss observed. Then again, was Ballard aware that Burroughs was also a widower? When Burroughs appeared on a BBC television broadcast in January 1964, he discussed the shooting death of his wife Joan, blaming it on alcohol. Perhaps some part of Ballard would have been interested to commune with Burroughs on this morbid level. In a sense, The Atrocity Exhibition undertakes this conversation with Naked Lunch — one widower to another in the fragmented language of experimentalism. Both writers would numb their grief with substance abuse — heroin for one, whiskey for the other — though Ballard would determine to become the model single parent of which Burroughs was the antithesis.

First Meeting

S.F. Horizons, Winter 1965At the end of 1964 Burroughs returned to America for an eventful visit that included the death of his father in Florida, a homecoming in St Louis (where, on assignment for Playboy, he composed an autobiographical cut-up that the magazine rejected), and encounters with the “underground” literary scene burgeoning in New York. He did not forget Ballard during this time. An interviewer from S.F. Horizons asked which science fiction writers interested him. Bringing out a copy of New Worlds, Burroughs listed “Mr. Ballard and Mr. Moorcock in England, Mr. Arthur C. Clarke. Mr Sturgeon, of course.”26 By summer, however, Burroughs was bored in America. “Nothing here really,” he wrote to Sommerville, “I just stay in my loft and work.”27 Leaving New York in September 1965, Burroughs traveled to London. Visa difficulties made it impossible for him to remain in England past December. It was not a particularly productive autumn. Burroughs attempted to patch up his relationship with Sommerville, complained about the weather (“London rather grey”), and gave a reading at the St Martin School of Art, where Trocchi was teaching.28 But it was during this visit that Burroughs may have met Ballard in person for the first time.

Though Ballard gave numerous public accounts of his relationship with Burroughs, only once did he specify the time and place they were introduced. “I met WSB in about 1965 — in London, through Bill Butler, an American poet, now sadly dead, who ran a little publishing house in Brighton.”29 It is not a given that Ballard’s recollection is accurate. In interviews he gave slightly different dates for his interactions with Burroughs, and friends of Ballard offer alternative possibilities. Bax suggests that it was Anselm Hollo who brokered a meeting.30 Moorcock believes the two writers met at one of his parties: “I am pretty sure that JGB met WB at a party of mine which I gave so that some of these people could meet but it could also have been in John Calder’s office. I’m certain Bill Butler wasn’t there and I’m pretty sure he didn’t introduce Bill to Jimmy.”31 Memories may vary in their reliability, but the names that crop up — Butler, Calder, Moorcock, Bax, Hollo — do chart the “social graph” or, as Burroughs had put it, the scene connecting the very different milieus of the fantasist in Shepperton and the nomad inventor of Interzone.

According to David Pringle, Ballard met Bill Butler in September 1965 — right as Burroughs was getting to London.32 A year after his wife’s death, Ballard was establishing connections with writers such as Bax and trying to figure out his place in what would come to be called Swinging London. Butler did not yet know Burroughs but had recently befriended Allen Ginsberg, who visited London in summer 1965. In November, using Ginsberg’s name as a reference, Butler requested an interview with Burroughs.33 Perhaps he bumped into Burroughs on November 18 at Better Books, where Jeff Nuttall had called for a meeting to bring together “people who hold the basic belief that human consciousness must change or humanity will destroy itself.”34 Nuttall had circulated a group invite that included Burroughs, Butler, Alex Trocchi, Harry Fainlight, Jim Haynes, and B.S. Johnson, but not Ballard (in spite of the fact that Burroughs had already recommended adding him to My Own Mag‘s mailing list). The interview was conducted around this time and published in the Guardian newspaper on November 27. Consequently, if Butler brokered a meeting between Burroughs and Ballard in 1965, it had to occur after mid-November. Because Butler occupied a managerial role at Better Books, which was as much a meeting place for the growing underground as it was a bookstore, it is not difficult to imagine an unplanned introduction in the aisles. “Oh, Bill, this is Jim Ballard…” Bax met Burroughs in person in a similar setting at Indica Books.

Because of his visa difficulties, Burroughs decamped to Tangiers for Christmas 1965. By January, however, he returned to London, where something of a scene was coming together. In March 1966, New Worlds published poetry by Butler. In April, Nuttall’s My Own Mag included Burroughs, Butler, and Moorcock — but not Ballard — on a list of contacts. That same month, New Worlds featured Ballard’s story “The Assassination Weapon” and an essay by Butler about Burroughs. Occasioned by the English publication of The Soft Machine and Nova Express, Butler’s essay reworked the November interview with Burroughs that had been printed in the Guardian. The revision begins by acknowledging the “sensitive appreciation” Ballard had offered in “Myth Maker of the Twentieth Century.” It then reveals that Ballard’s admiration for Burroughs was at least partly mutual.

William Burroughs reads science fiction and uses fragments from science fiction… He mentioned Ballard’s collection, Terminal Beach, published by Gollancz, saying that he had enjoyed several of the stories very much.35

As if to leave no doubt about the nodes in the developing social network, Butler’s essay also describes the regular column Burroughs was composing for My Own Mag, “Jeff Nuttall’s mimeographed magazine from Barnet, Hertfordshire.”

Ambit 27, Spring 1966While Burroughs was reading Ballard’s short stories, Ballard was trying to process Burroughs’ novels. If that processing was latent in the nonlinear narratives Ballard was composing, it was manifest in another critique. The spring 1966 issue of Ambit featured “Terminal Documents,” a reworking of Ballard’s earlier essay on Burroughs. This revised text, which labels him the “first mythographer of the mid-20th century” and the “lineal successor to James Joyce,” continued to position Burroughs as a writer of inner space. However, “Terminal Documents” differed from “Myth Maker of the Twentieth Century” in that it was not wholly laudatory. For the first time, Ballard interspersed his praise with negative judgements. “Certain conclusions” that Burroughs draws about “society at large” and “our notions of reality,” Ballard commented, “seem to me to be questionable.” Burroughs’ “view of the sexual act” is subject to a Freudian interpretation, with Ballard calling it “regressive,” “infantile,” and “excessively dominated by the functions of urination and defecation” — a verdict that, ironically, echoes Sitwell’s barb about not wanting her nose nailed to anyone’s lavatory.

Uncharacteristically, Ballard’s language in “Terminal Documents” is torturous. His judgements are not phrased in the lucid, almost epigrammatic style for which he became known. Instead, they are offered in looping run-on sentences, the divagations of a person struggling to criticize without criticizing. If “Terminal Documents” marked the first time Ballard publicly found fault with Burroughs, it also marked the introduction of an ambivalence that would persist in Ballard’s future comments on the author of Naked Lunch. On one hand, Ballard was frank in his admiration. On the other hand, he was insistent that he had been inspired but not influenced by Burroughs. Ballard may have especially wanted to make this point in “Terminal Documents” because this same issue of Ambit featured “You : Coma : Marilyn Monroe,” another of his new “condensed novels.” Was it necessary to criticize Burroughs in order to disavow any influence on the nonlinear writing technique with which Ballard was experimenting? Or was Ballard disappointed with the man after meeting Burroughs for the first time?

Dinner at Duke Street

The view from 8 Duke Street, St James (photo by William Burroughs)
The view from 8 Duke Street, St James (photo by William Burroughs)

In July 1966, Burroughs signed a lease for an apartment on Duke Street, St James, beginning a residency in London that would last until 1974. On July 15, Moorcock threw a party at his Notting Hill flat with the intention of introducing the burgeoning scene to the writer Judith Merril. Burroughs and Ballard both attended Moorcock’s Friday get-together, but it was scarcely a meeting of the minds. Ballard likely spent the evening chatting with Merril, with whom he had commenced an affair the previous September. Burroughs preferred to spend the evening with Arthur C. Clarke, with whom he shared an enthusiasm for travel, technology, and young men. The two had previously met in December 1964 at the Chelsea Hotel in New York.36 At the July party, Moorcock recalled, Burroughs and Clarke “spent the entire evening deep in animated conversation, pausing only to sip their OJ and complain about the rock’n’roll music on the hifi.”37 Not long after, Merril would include both Burroughs (“They Do Not Always Remember”) and Ballard (“The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D” and “You : Coma : Marilyn Monroe”) in the twelfth installment in her respected line of science fiction anthologies.

After Burroughs moved into his Duke Street flat in August 1966, Ballard came for supper. Duke Street was not far from Piccadilly Circus, which interested Burroughs because, Ballard recalled, “that’s where all the boys used to congregate, in the lavatory of the big Piccadilly Circus Underground station.”38 The flat “was very neat and tidy and clean” — the legendary chaos of Burroughs’ Tangiers digs had given way to the orderly rooms whose upkeep he would describe in “The Discipline of DE.”39 (“Cleaning the flat is a problem of logistics…”) In his obituary of Burroughs, Ballard gave his standard account of the evening:

Esquire had asked me to write a profile of him, but Burroughs, though courteous, was very suspicious. The baleful power of media empires already obsessed him. While his young boyfriend, “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles, carved a roast chicken, Burroughs described the most effective way to stab a man to death. All the while he kept an eye on the doors and windows. “The CIA are watching me,” he confided. “They park their laundry vans in the street outside.”40

The account, repeated with slight variations in a handful of interviews, raises a number of questions. Exactly when did this dinner take place? How did Esquire get involved? Who was the boyfriend with the tattooed knuckles? Why did Ballard not complete a profile of Burroughs for the magazine?

Ballard gave a range of dates for the dinner. The obit situated it in the “early 1960s,” impossible since Burroughs only took possession of the flat in 1966. One interview rightly placed the dinner in the “late sixties.”41 But what is “late” — 1966? 1969? Esquire cannot furnish a date. Scandalously, the magazine has not retained its correspondence from the period.42 Burroughs was in frequent contact with Esquire during the 1960s, not only submitting texts but answering queries for random features such as “if your life were being played by a movie star, whom would you choose?” (Burroughs’ reply: “I would cast myself in a biographical film since I write my own biography.”43) Burroughs’ archives, however, contain no mention of a profile. Ballard never did contribute to the magazine, though Esquire would have been aware of him. The U.S. publication of The Crystal World earned a review from the New York Times in May 1966, and Alice Glaser, an associate editor at Esquire, was cognizant of the science-fiction scene.44 In March 1968 editor-in-chief Harold Hayes visited London and Paris to ask Burroughs — as well as Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett — to cover the upcoming Democratic convention. Did Hayes, aware of Ballard’s rising star, give him a call or suggest the profile? The Hayes archive at Wake Forest university contains no letters to or from Ballard.

If the Esquire assignment cannot date the encounter, there remains the boyfriend. Shortly after Burroughs moved into the Duke Street apartment, Ian Sommerville and his lover Alan Watson moved in. Sommerville did not have the tattoos. Watson, who worked in the canteen at Scotland Yard and was capable of producing the roast chicken that Ballard thought “tasty,” did not have the tattoos either. Barry Miles, who knew Watson, says he would have been “shocked at the very suggestion.”45 Ending the complicated ménage with Burroughs, Sommerville and Watson moved out in August 1968. Subsequently, in October, John Culverwell moved in and remained for about eighteen months. Did he have “love” and “hate” on his knuckles? A snapshot of Culverwell in the Burroughs archive at the New York Public Library reveals no ink on his knuckles.46 His hands are not prominent enough in the picture to rule it out, though. It is also possible that the boyfriend with the tattooed knuckles was a passing bit of street trade from Piccadilly Circus. “The love-hate thing,” Miles suggests, “was mostly confined to ‘rockers’ or manual labourers and in fact I’m inclined to doubt that Bill ever had a long-term boyfriend with such a tattoo, wrong sort of person for him.”47

Alternatively, it may have been the tattoos that were temporary. They were perfectly attuned, with their contrast of “love” and “hate,” to the Scientology techniques Burroughs was exploring at the time. The training required to become a “clear,” Burroughs wrote, “consists of a series of contradictory propositions and running this material does give a certain immunity to contradictory commands.”48 In Nova Express, this training is transformed into the “signal switch” — “what they call the ‘yes no’ sir… ‘I love you I hate you’ at supersonic alternating speed…” It is easy to imagine Burroughs picking up a hustler because the tattoos on his knuckles played into his preoccupation with Scientology processing techniques. Or to imagine Burroughs suggesting the tattoos as an intimate way of continuing his Scientology exercises and inuring himself to contradictory commands. Or to imagine one of his steady boyfriends inking himself as a way to tease Burroughs about his obsessions. Intimidating as Burroughs could be, lovers often had him at psychological disadvantage.

Another possibility for dating the Duke Street supper lies in Burroughs’ seemingly paranoid fantasies about the CIA. In interviews, Ballard consistently repeated the anecdote about Burroughs worrying that agents surveilled him from a disguised laundry van. “I don’t think he was having me on,” Ballard said. “His imagination was filled with bizarre lore culled from Believe It Or Not features, police pulps and — in the case, I assume, of the laundry vans — Hollywood spy movies of the cold war years.”49 Ballard was almost right about the origin of the laundry vans. Oddly enough, “paranoia about laundry vans” is a theme that can be traced in Burroughs’ writings and interviews. It appears for the first time in an interview Burroughs granted underground newspaper The Rat in September 1968.

A recent article in Esquire Magazine written by a former CIA agent contains this anecdote. A man with photos of the Bay of Pigs was on his way to a newspaper office when the agent who was tailing him called a special number in Washington. “On the way to the newspaper he was run over by a laundry truck.” Not so easy to be sure of nailing someone in a walk across town, after all people do look before crossing streets. I would venture the guess that he was pushed in front of the truck by a laser.50

Ramparts, April 1967The anecdote derived not from a “recent” Esquire but from the April 1967 issue of muckraking magazine Ramparts, then publishing a series of sensationalistic exposés of the CIA.51 Burroughs took up the story and repeated it in The Job, finished in October 1968, and in an article published in Mayfair Magazine in January 1969.52 If Ramparts was the origin of the laundry van in his ravings, it follows that Ballard cannot have visited Burroughs at the Duke Street flat prior to April 1967. Even more likely is that Ballard visited soon after Burroughs returned from the August 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Burroughs had been on assignment for Esquire, who had treated him generously. When he returned to London in September 1968, was it with a suggestion from the editors that Ballard should profile him for the magazine? Supper might have been served by John Culverwell, who had just moved in, and Ballard would have been exposed to the “paranoia” inspired in Burroughs by the riots and police brutality he had witnessed in Chicago.

Ultimately the supper left Ballard disinclined to profile Burroughs. “I turned down the Esquire assignment, realising that nothing I wrote could remotely do justice to Burroughs’ magnificently paranoid imagination.”53 Although “paranoid” was not exactly a reproach — Ballard deeply admired Salvador Dali, who described his aesthetics in terms of “critical paranoia” — he appears to have been genuinely unnerved to discover that Burroughs thought like he wrote. In addition, Ballard was unable to find a comfort zone with two major aspects of Burroughs’ lifestyle. Burroughs, Ballard told an interviewer, “was a complete original but difficult to get to know if you weren’t (a) homosexual, which I wasn’t, and (b) a drug user, which again I wasn’t.”54 A drinker, Ballard had done no more than dabble with the cornucopia of drugs offered up by the counterculture. And while it would be presumptuous to declare Ballard a homophobe, his recollections indicate that he felt awkward about Burroughs’ sexual orientation. When a female interviewer said she found Burroughs difficult, Ballard — then promoting The Kindness of Women — replied, “Well, he’s so anti-woman, isn’t he? It’s a masculine world. It’s more than that; it’s very hardcore… and a homosexual world which I find very weird.”55

If he found homosexuality “weird,” what did it mean for Ballard to include it in the fiction he was composing at the time? In Crash, the narrator “Ballard” wonders whether a “latent homo-erotic element had been brought to the surface of my mind by [Vaughan’s] photographs of violence and sexuality.” Did the real Ballard experience something similar in his confrontation with Burroughs’ images? The title alone of the story “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” shows Ballard toying with an aggressive public stance that, in private, might well have made him uncomfortable. In interviews he was sure to contrast his orientation with that of Burroughs.

I admire Burroughs more than any other living writer, and most of those who are dead. It’s nothing to do with his homosexual bent, by the way. I’m no member of the “homintern,” but a lifelong straight who prefers the company of women to most men. The few homosexual elements in Crash and Atrocity Exhibition, fucking Reagan, et cetera, are there for reasons other than the sexual — in fact, to show a world beyond sexuality, or, at least beyond clear sexual gender.56

It’s an ambiguous position. On one hand, Ballard’s use of homosexuality is as progressive as Swinging London. It points to a liberality so extreme that, like the novel fetish of Crash, it exceeds sexuality itself. On the other hand, by dissolving homosexuality in a “world beyond sexuality” and using it for “reasons other than the sexual,” Ballard neutralizes the very thing in it that discomfits. It’s not gay. It’s just outlandish.

J.G. Ballard, Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, Unicorn Books, 1968
J.G. Ballard, Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, Unicorn Books, 1968

These issues were at play in January 1968 when Bill Butler published a limited, standalone edition of “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.” According to biographer John Baxter, Butler “regarded publishing Jim’s text in part as a gesture of homosexual activism.”57 It was a daring move. Burroughs had already noted, in an April 23, 1967 letter to French writer Claude Pélieu, that “There had been a lot of trouble here book shops raided heat on the drug scene.”58 The heat caused John Calder to delay the UK publication of The Soft Machine. Butler’s bookshop, Unicorn Books, was raided the same month it put out Ballard’s text. Over seventy titles were seized — in addition to underground magazines and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” there were books by Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Huncke, and John Giorno. Butler was charged with selling obscene material. A trial was scheduled for August 1968 — precisely when Burroughs was in Chicago covering the Democratic convention — and Ballard was asked to testify on Butler’s half.59 “Preparing me,” Ballard recounted,

the defence lawyer asked me why I believed “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” was not obscene, to which I had to reply that of course it was obscene, and intended to be so. Why, then, was its subject matter not Reagan’s sexuality? Again I had to affirm that it was. At last the lawyer said: “Mr Ballard, you will make a very good witness for the prosecution. We will not be calling you.”60

Larry Wallrich and Eric Mottram, eds., For Bill Butler, 1970Ballard’s refusal to apologize for his text was laudable from a literary standpoint. Perhaps he was even gunning for an obscenity trial as a way to put his work on the same plane as Naked Lunch. But this defiant stance helped neither the legal case nor Ballard’s relationship with the man who had introduced him to Burroughs. “Sadly,” Ballard admitted, “all this led to a coolness between Bill [Butler] and myself.” Butler was judged guilty, and friends attempted to defray his legal expenses by compiling an anthology of poetry and prose. Published in 1970, For Bill Butler contained a stellar list of contributors drawn from the bookseller’s sizable social network.61 Ballard was not among them. Neither was Burroughs, though he had agreed to contribute.62 Likely Burroughs’ submission metamorphosed into Ali’s Smile, published separately by Unicorn Books in 1971.

The London Scene

By the time of Butler’s trial, Ballard had become a figure not just in the science-fiction scene but in the literary vanguard. In August 1969, his name appeared in the printed program for the Harrogate Festival of Arts & Sciences, where he was to appear at the Third International Literary Conference alongside Burroughs, Moorcock, Nuttall, B.S. Johnson, his friend Christopher Evans, and others. Deciding instead to vacation in Italy with his children, Ballard withdrew from the event, as did Moorcock. Burroughs, Nuttall, and Martin Bax attended, along with a range of luminaries including Marshall McLuhan, Arthur Koestler, and Herbert Marcuse. Burroughs, according to a review in the Guardian, spoke about “worldwide reaction.”63 Afterward Christopher Priest and Norman Spinrad, who took the place of Ballard and Moorcock, accompanied Burroughs back to London on the train. They were amazed to see the lurid tabloids he purchased at a newsstand. “Look at this stuff,” Spinrad recalled Burroughs chortling. “Juicy.”64 John Calder, who organized the literary panel, subsequently wrote a letter apologizing to Burroughs for the way the event had been “dogged by last-minute cancellations.”65 It is difficult not to agree. The festival would have been much more noteworthy had Ballard not withdrawn. It would have been the only time Burroughs and Ballard engaged in a public discussion.

International Times, July 1970As though to make up for missing the Harrogate Festival, Ballard allowed himself to be talked into reading at the Phun City rock festival in July 1970. An advertisement in the July 17 issue of International Times touted the presence of the usual suspects — Burroughs, Ballard, Nuttall, Butler, Trocchi, and others. Burroughs looked forward to the festival as a place to perform experiments with tape recorders. “Scrambles,” a text he contributed to that same issue of International Times (later collected in Electronic Revolution), envisioned planting enough recorders “to lay down a grid of sound over the whole festival.” Ballard fictionalized the event in The Kindness of Women, portraying himself as reluctant to attend except for the opportunity to appear alongside Burroughs:

“You’ll enjoy it — Burroughs will be there.”

“The great man. But what do I read?”

“Anything. One of your sado-masochistic romps should go down a treat. The audiences are very conventional.”

“So am I. Sally…”

The romps were those of The Atrocity Exhibition, published in book form by Jonathan Cape that same month. But however radical his writing may have been, Ballard was reminded of his conventionality from the moment of his arrival on Saturday, July 25. “I was doing a reading, so was William Burroughs,” he recalled, “and when I arrived the Hell’s Angels security guards said to me, ‘Dad, you’re in the wrong place…'”66 With his children in tow, he cannot have seen Burroughs much. The Kindness of Women only indicates that “Burroughs hovered briefly into view, as formal as an undertaker in his natty suit.” Ballard described reading — “My dreams of Mrs Kennedy’s sexuality had boomed across the placid downs, unsettling the grazing cattle a dozen fields away” — but it is unclear he even took the stage. According to Maxim Jakubowski,

all the writers present were utterly bewildered as to why they should be there and never made it to the stage although the deejay kept on saying through the sound system that all these fab groovy people were there.

The readings were to be held in an inflatable dome which failed to inflate, obliging the writers to relocate to a makeshift “tent used for collective acts of worship by a Christian group, from which the poets were quickly evicted (by Hells Angels!) due to their continual swearing.”67 Meantime Burroughs made less of an impression with words than with drugs. Overdosing, he was carried to the medical tent.68 Afterward he wrote to Brion Gysin, “The Phun City festival was rather fun but no chance to do anything with recorders.”69 No chance for Burroughs and Ballard to engage in meaningful discourse either.

The Atrocity Exhibition

Their relationship, however, was about to reach the moment that served as its climax. Just six or eight weeks before Phun City, an executive at the New York publisher Doubleday was scandalized by “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” and ordered an entire print run of The Atrocity Exhibition, due on June 12, 1970, to be pulped. Subsequently E.P. Dutton purchased the book and scheduled its American publication for April 1971. Lawyers sent Ballard a letter requesting him to remove three entire texts as well as “sexual fantasies about public figures.”70 Ballard refused and the book made its way to Grove Press, which had successfully defended Naked Lunch from obscenity charges in 1962. As though to underscore that legal victory, Burroughs contributed a brief foreword to the book. It was his first and only text about J.G. Ballard.

“Grove Press arranged his superb introduction,” Ballard told an interviewer.71 It is unclear who actually asked Burroughs — Ballard? Barney Rosset? someone else at Grove? — but the publisher would have been alert to the strategic significance of having Burroughs’ name attached to the book. Editor Fred Jordan, who joined Grove in 1956 and began to work more closely with Burroughs after the departure of Richard Seaver in late 1971, wrote Burroughs on June 13, 1972:

Herewith a copy of ATROCITY EXHIBITION which J.G. Ballard has agreed will be titled in the U.S. edition as LOVE AND NAPALM: EXPORT U.S.A. We are delighted that you have agreed to write a short introduction for the book, and we are allowing two pages for it. Since the book is now in production, I would be grateful if you could get it to me as soon as possible.72

That Jordan sent the British edition from New York back to London suggests that Burroughs agreed to pen an introduction without having read the book yet. Likely, though, he had seen some of the stories as they appeared in small magazines. Ballard had also sent him an invitation to the April 3, 1970 private view of his Crashed Cars exhibit at the London New Arts Laboratory, though there is no evidence Burroughs attended.73 (Jo Stanley’s cheeky account of the vernissage does not mention him, although it appeared in the same May 29, 1970 issue of Friends that contained a review of The Job.74) In any event, Burroughs tended to be generous about furnishing prefaces, forewords, letters, and “counterscripts” to books produced by writers who were exploring and extending his nonlinear writing techniques. From 1965 to 1972, he contributed to works by Jacques Stern, Jeff Nuttall, Claude Pélieu, Carl Weissner, Jan Herman, Graham Masterton, and others. When it came to The Atrocity Exhibition, he may also have wanted to reciprocate for the support that Ballard had steadily offered.

J.G. Ballard, Liebe + Napalm: Export USA, Translation by Carl WeissnerRenaming the Grove edition of The Atrocity Exhibition after one of its stories, “Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A.,” was Jordan’s decision. Carl Weissner, who translated the book into German using a proof copy provided by Cape, had wanted to retitle the book Liebe und Napalm in order to use a Warholesque cover illustration of a screen queen, clad in bikini and American flag, holding a machine gun.75 Ballard, writing to Weissner on July 17, 1969, readily assented: “By all means use Love & Napalm.”76 Jordan, who was born in Vienna and educated in England, must have encountered Weissner’s translation and thought the new name a good idea. But while Ballard was agreeable about the German title, he disliked it for the U.S. edition:

I remember sitting in a London hotel with Fred Jordan, the intelligent and likeable editor at Grove, and arguing against the title on the grounds (a) that the Vietnam war was over (this was 1971), and (b) that it would give an apparently anti-American slant to the whole book. Jordan maintained that the war was not over and would continue to rouse violent passions for years to come. I felt that he was wrong, and that though the tragedy would cast its shadow for decades across America, the era of street protests and marches was over.77

Ballard, who had been insistent on the obscenity of “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” ceased to insist on the title. He was being practical — the book was already on its third American publisher. It must also have appealed to him to place the book with the firm that had championed Burroughs’ greatest work. “It gave the book,” Moorcock recalled, “a sort of entrée into American lit circles so he was pleased with that.”78

On Wednesday, June 21, 1972, Jordan followed up with a telegram to Burroughs. “CAN I EXPECT INTRODUCTION FOR BALLARD BY END OF THIS WEEK OR MONDAY AT THE LATEST PLEASE KEEP IT WITHIN 500 WORDS.”79 The length was critical because Grove was using the layout from Cape and making space for the foreword by removing a chapter heading. Burroughs was already having a productive week: he was drafting an essay about the use of cut-ups (“I was waiting there in someone else’s writing”), recording dreams (“Long dream about the family a rich family called the Macormick family somewhere in South America”), experimenting with a color polaroid camera borrowed from filmmaker Antony Balch, and working with Barry Miles to create a salable archive of his papers.80 The day before receiving Jordan’s telegram, he indicated that work on the foreword was under way:

I will now ask the reader to place himself in present time. The day is Tuesday June 20 1972. I have been invited to go to The Glostenbury Tower for the summer solstice. It looks like rain so I probably won’t go. I have a foreword for J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibit under preparation. I am in flat 18 at 8 Duke Street St James.81

Using black ink, Burroughs drew vertical lines beside eight passages in the copy of The Atrocity Exhibition that Grove had sent.82 The passages contain nothing of obvious appeal to Burroughs, though he happened to mark two of the three paragraphs referring to the “suburbs of Hell.” There are no other marginalia in the book and the vertical marks disappear after page 88, suggesting that Burroughs may have read no further. Perhaps he was only half way through when Jordan’s telegram prompted him to stop reading and finish what he had started writing.

An unpublished draft of his foreword shows that Burroughs began in straightforward, even pedestrian style (and continued to mangle the title, shortening “exhibition” to “exhibit”):

I am not surprised that The Atrocity Exhibit by J.G. Ballard has encountered publication difficulties and that two publishers having brought [sic] the book and paid the advance subsequently refused to publish. It is an extremely profound and disquieting book.83

Burroughs approached the text as an exercise in free association or what he called “intersection reading,” alternating quotes from the book with his own responses. For example, he had marked a passage about news magazines littered “around the bedroom of the shabby hotel in Earls Court.” Burroughs noted that it was “just such a shabby hotel as I used to live in” and typed in a line from The Wild Boys referring to a pub in the same neighborhood. Subsequently Burroughs drew quadrants atop a draft of his foreword and cut it into quarters, which he rearranged and retyped. With a pen he underlined compelling phrases such as “a disquieting illustrated hard core news week” and “immense Jane Mansfield Albert Camus wrecked the planet of films.” Finally Burroughs distilled this collection of reactions, recollections, quotes, and cut-ups into 478 words.

The resulting foreword focuses on two points — the “nonsexual roots of sexuality” and the observation that “the line between inner and outer landscapes is breaking down” — but it fails to say much about either. Possibly Burroughs was hampered by the word count. In discussing the breakdown between inner and outer landscapes, the published text offers the inscrutable assertion that “earthquakes can result from seismic upheavals within the human mind.” In draft, Burroughs had added that “I have a whole file on earthquakes and in some cases these were preceded by some upheaval within my own mind.” The addition clarifies his point by showing a correlation between objective and subjective, something along the lines of Charles Baudelaire’s notion of poetic “correspondences.” But even granting that the word count might have posed a challenge, Burroughs’ foreword retains a haphazard, even lackadaisical air. It gives no evidence of enthusiasm for The Atrocity Exhibition. It does not call Ballard a genius or a friend. In public Ballard called Burroughs’ foreword “superb,” but it cannot have been what he hoped for. “I think Jimmy was a little disappointed by Bill’s intro,” Moorcock recalls. “I remember him chuckling about it.”84

J.G. Ballard, Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A., Grove Press, 1972Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A. appeared in November 1972 without inspiring obscenity trials or libel suits. Asking Burroughs to preface the book might have seemed savvy to Grove, but it also posed a danger evident in Paul Theroux’s review in the New York Times.85 Ballard’s name did not appear in the review until after Burroughs’, subtly placing the work under his aegis. Calling Love and Napalm “horrible… a boring and pointless book,” Theroux portrayed Ballard’s Dr Nathan as a “less crazed and more ponderous version of Burroughs’ own Doctor Benway.” Ballard must not have appreciated the comparison. He replied to it in a later interview, declaring that “I don’t want to say he’s my Dr Benway, because Benway is Burroughs’ most powerful character. Nathan is a minor character in this book.”86 Reviewers of Ballard’s “condensed novels” consistently invoked Burroughs, and Ballard just as consistently took pains to refute the influence. The Guardian’s 1970 review of The Atrocity Exhibition had accused him of “borrowing Burroughs’ techniques and preoccupations.”87 The next year, Ballard repudiated the charge:

People have said it’s derived from Burroughs — well, they’ve never read any Burroughs. The thing about this narrative technique is that I’m able to move rapidly from public events to the most intimate private events, in the space of a few lines. Not only that, I can annex an enormous amount of material into the narrative, which one wouldn’t be able to do in a conventional form.88

This disavowal was not quite sincere. In 1967, while still writing the nonlinear tales of The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard offered to perform his technique on stories sent to him by Michael Butterworth. In two detailed letters describing his procedure, he explicitly acknowledged that it resembled Burroughs’ approach.89 “I know that Burroughs uses a similar method,” he wrote Butterworth on January 29, 1967, “condensing out his images and narrative from a much greater body of original material.” He also cautioned Butterworth in these and other letters about emulating Burroughs. “Why not invent your own mythology of time & space, vocabulary of images and the technique necessary to express them?”90 Was this a question Ballard was posing to himself as well? To warn Butterworth against Burroughs’ influence reveals that Ballard held a deeper belief about what a writer should be — original, unique, sui generis. It may have been disingenuous for Ballard to deny that Burroughs had affected his condensed novels, but perhaps he mostly stopped writing them — and completely stopped touting the technique to other writers — to ensure that he remained true to that belief.

Later Years

If Ballard wrote a thank-you note to Burroughs for the foreword, it has been lost. The scene connecting the writers dissipated in the years following the publication of Love and Napalm. In 1974 Burroughs moved back to America without Ballard quite realizing he had left. The next year Ballard wrote to Butterworth, “I think [Burroughs is] still living in London — to be honest I’ve rather moved out of underground circles.”91 In the years to come, Ballard would review Burroughs’ books. He blurbed Cities of the Red Night for the Guardian: “Burroughs may look at life through the wrong end of the proctoscope, but his scatological humour and strange surgeon’s eye are as sharp as ever.” He also reviewed The Place of Dead Roads, though he seemed to prefer publications of a retrospective or biographical nature, such as The Adding Machine, The Letters of William S. Burroughs: 1945-1959, and Ted Morgan’s biography Literary Outlaw. Burroughs did not keep quite as current with Ballard’s work. On April 22, 1979, Burroughs replied to a correspondent who asked him about Ballard:

J.G. Ballard is an old friend of mine who used to write science fiction and is now doing work that is difficult to classify. He wrote a book called The Atrocity Exhibit and more recently Car Crash which is the book you refer to. Grove Press is the publisher.92

Burroughs continued to mangle the title of The Atrocity Exhibition, misremembered the title of Crash, and erred in attributing the latter publication to Grove Press. (The American edition of Crash was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1973.) He also ignored more recent books by Ballard, such as Concrete Island and High Rise. But the respect he maintained for Ballard is clear in the appellation “old friend.”

“I haven’t seen Burroughs in the flesh for a long time,” Ballard told an interviewer in 1985.93 He did describe how he had only met Brion Gysin — “A very nice guy!” — for the first time the year before. On May 31, 1988 Ballard attended the opening of Burroughs’ exhibit of paintings at the October Gallery in London. Burroughs was photographed with Francis Bacon, whom he had known since the 1950s in Tangier, and at one point withdrew to a corner of the gallery with both Bacon and Ballard.94 While it may be tempting to imagine what these three luminaries discussed, likely it was nothing more than standard party chat. “In some 20 meetings,” Ballard recalled, “we never discussed anything literary.”95 Burroughs, as Ballard was aware, had once caricatured the conversation of writers who don’t discuss writing.

“Evelyn Waugh was my very good friend, but we never discussed writing.” This is the English game, of course; talk about the weather, talk about anything so long as it isn’t important.96

But why would the two have discussed literature? By the time Ballard was championing nonlinear writing techniques, Burroughs had begun a slow return to more traditional narrative forms. In later years Burroughs remained an avid reader of the brand of sci-fi available at airport bookstores — a genre from which Ballard had separated himself. Burroughs also became enthusiastic about the work of Denton Welch, an English writer who would have seemed parochial to Ballard. Meantime Ballard’s public accolades might well have made Burroughs uncomfortable discussing his own work. “He didn’t seem,” Ballard recalled, “aware of the, sort of, compliments I paid him, because he was completely locked into a really, rather paranoid world.”97 Yet the two writers respected and appreciated each other. On December 24, 1993 the Guardian asked Ballard what he would give his “heroes and villains” for Christmas. Ballard replied that “I would like to give something to William Burroughs, but I don’t know what.”98 Perhaps it was symbolic that this inability to conceive of a gift sounded almost like a form of writer’s block. For Burroughs and Ballard, to exchange formalities such as greeting cards was a way of not writing — a way of not engaging on literature or art or anything of substance — and also a way of rewriting, of making a preprinted “happy holidays” say something about esteem and the affection that arises after decades of mutual regard.

Especial thanks to David Pringle, who contributed invaluable insight and research from the Ballard perspective, and to Anne Garner of the New York Public Library, who expanded and nurtured the research in this essay with her generous knowledge of the Burroughs archive.

Thanks as well to James Grauerholz, Barry Miles, Michael Moorcock, Michael Butterworth, Charles Platt, Martin Bax, Carl Weissner, Jan Herman, Graham Rae, and the October Gallery of London.


Conversations  V. Vale, J.G. Ballard: Conversations, San Francisco: Re/Search, 2005
Kadrey & Stefanac Richard Kadrey and Suzanne Stefanac, “J.G. Ballard on William S. Burroughs’ Naked Truth,” Salon, September 1997
Obit J.G. Ballard, “‘The CIA Are Watching Me,’ He Confided” (obituary of William Burroughs), The Guardian, Aug 4, 1997, p 13.
Papers William S. Burroughs Papers, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
Rae J.G. Ballard to Graham Rae, 6 December 2006, provided by recipient. The correspondence includes responses to interview questions about William Burroughs. The interview was published separately from the letter in “Can’t Rub Out the Word Hoard,” LauraHird.com, 2007.


1. “JGB Interviewed by Mark Pauline” (circa 1986), Conversations, pp 156-157.

2. Victor Bockris, With William Burroughs, New York, Seaver Books, 1981.

3. Johnny Strike (aka John Bassett), “The Burroughs Workshops,” Ambit 95, December 1983, p 42.

4. Rae.

5. 1959: Ballard in “The Author’s Author,” The Guardian, Oct 26, 1998, p 49; “about 1960”: Rae; “something like 1960”: Kadrey & Stefanac; 1963: Jon Savage, Interview with J.G. Ballard, Search and Destroy 10, 1978.

6. David Pringle email, Oct 22, 2011. Jakubowski believes he brought the Olympia Press editions of Burroughs to London in early September 1963. Pringle speculates that Jakubowski may have passed them off to Moorcock on Thursday, Sept 5, 1963, at a pub called The Globe, and that Moorcock may have passed them off to Ballard the next day at lunch.

7. Mark P. Williams, “Michael Moorcock on William S. Burroughs.”

8. Kadrey & Stefanac

9. Ballard in “The Author’s Author,” The Guardian, Oct 26, 1998, p 49.

10. Rae.

11. Times Literary Supplement, Nov 21, 1963.

12. J.G. Ballard, “Terminal Documents,” Ambit 27, 1966.

13. Burroughs to Moorcock, Dec 18, 1963, Papers, Box 88, Folder 1, Item 4.

14. Burroughs to Bax, Feb 18, 1964, Papers, Box 88, Folder 1, Item 14.

15. Eric Mottram BBC Broadcast, March 9, 1964, reprinted as “The Algebra of Need,” in Sylvère Lotringer, ed., Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs, New York, Semiotext(e), 2001.

16. Burroughs to Ballard, Mar 23, 1964, Papers, Box 88, Folder 2, Item 25.

17. Interview with Ballard in Will Self, Junk Mail, New York, Grove Press, 2006, p 26.

18. Wilhelm von Branca, quoted and translated in Richard Swan Lull, “On the Functions of the ‘Sacral Brain’ in Dinosaurs,” The American Journal of Science, July 1917.

19. “Interview with J. G. Ballard,” Munich Round Up, 100 (1968), 104-6.

20. Quoted in Chris Beckett, “The Progress of the Text: The Papers of J. G. Ballard at the British Library,” Electronic British Library Journal, 2011, http://www.bl.uk/eblj/2011articles/article12.html.

21. William S. Burroughs, Naked Scientology, Bonn, Expanded Media Editions, 1978.

22. John Baxter, The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard, London, W&N, 2011.

23. Burroughs to Jeff Nuttall, May 1, 1964, Papers, Box 88, Folder 08, Item 20.

24. Burroughs to Ramsey Campbell, August 15, 1964, Papers, Box 88, Folder 4, Item 61.

25. Burroughs to Antony Balch, Sept 10, 1964, Papers, Box 79, Folder 5, Item 33.

26. “The Hallucinatory Operators Are Real” (New York 1965), interview by “staff reporters” in S.F Horizons 2, Oxford, Winter 1965.

27. Burroughs to Ian Sommerville, July 28, 1965, Papers, Box 80, Folder 20, Item 82.

28. “London rather grey” — Burroughs to David Prentice, October 11, 1965, Papers, Box 80, Folder 11, Item 69.

29. Rae.

30. Martin Bax, Email, August 9, 2011.

31. Michael Moorcock, Email, May 15, 2011.

32. David Pringle to J.G. Ballard Yahoo group, Sept 16, 2011. “I get the impression that Moorcock and the New Worlds crew really only got to know Butler at the Worldcon, in late August 1965. Ballard, as I’ve said, wasn’t there — he was probably still away in Greece with his kids (see Miracles of Life) — but he must have got back to England by the end of August if he was in attendance at Bon’s place in Oxford in early September (as he definitely was). I suspect what happened is that Moorcock called a party, or a get-together of some kind, soon (but not immediately) after the Worldcon, and that Ballard first met their new friend,┬áBill Butler, there.”

33. Barry Miles attests that Butler only met Burroughs in November 1965 and provided helpful background information about Butler. Miles, Email, Jan 10, 2012.

34. Jeff Nuttall to Burroughs, Nov 5, 1965, Papers, Box 80, Folder 8, Item 27

35. Bill Butler, “William Burroughs,” New Worlds, April 1966, pp 147 – 153.

36. Arthur C. Clarke, Lost Worlds of 2001, New York, New American Library, 1972. An excerpt online describes meeting with Burroughs.

37. Michael Moorcock, “Brave New Worlds,” The Guardian, March 21, 2008

38. Kadrey & Stefanac

39. “JGB Interviewed by Mark Pauline” (circa 1986), Conversations, pp 156-157.

40. Obit.

41. Interview with Ballard in Will Self, Junk Mail, p 26.

42. An Esquire editorial assistant confirmed in an email of June 27, 2011: “We do not have an archive of such materials: the magazine changed hands and offices several times over the years.”

43. Burroughs to John Berendt, September 8, 1965, Papers, Box 77, Folder 3, Item 12.

44. Alice Glaser, who would commit suicide around 1970 or 1971, published a story “The Tunnel Ahead” in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 21, 1961.

45. Barry Miles, Email, Jan 10, 2012.

46. Papers, Box 22, Folder 48, Item 62.

47. Barry Miles, Email, Jan 10, 2012.

48. Burroughs, Naked Scientology (originally a piece appearing in Rolling Stone, November 9, 1972).

49. Obit.

50. Jeff Shero, “Revolt!” (Interview with WSB, New York 1968), originally printed in RAT 18, October 4, 1968, in Sylvère Lotringer, ed., Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs, New York, Semiotext(e), 2001.

51. “3 Tales of the CIA. (1) How I got in, and why I came out of the Cold,” Ramparts, April 1967. The story, “as told to the editors,” describes a CIA instructor speaking to the narrator’s fellow recruits. “A man photographed one of the staging areas on Nicaragua for the Bay of Pigs invasion; his photos included the numbers and markings on American planes which had not yet been removed. Hitchhiking from Florida to New York, he talked about it to a man who picked him up. The man chanced to be a CIA man returning from one of the Agency’s numerous staging areas in Florida; he notified ‘the company.’ The hitchhiker was intercepted and interrogated. He could not be bought off — he was an idealist who was going to divulge the whole thing to the newspapers. ‘Well,’ the instructor who told the story stressed, ‘that man was on his way to the newspapers when he was struck by a laundry truck and killed. And those photos just plain disappeared.'”

52. Burroughs, The Job, London, John Calder, 1968, p 66. Burroughs, “Rally Round the Secret, Boys,” Burroughs Academy Bulletin 15, Mayfair Magazine, January 1969, p 53.

53. Obit.

54. Philip Dodd, “The Meaningless Universe Demands Meaningless Acts,” Night Waves, BBC Radio 3, October, 2003.

55. Ballard, “Interview with Lynne Fox” (1991), Conversations p 195.

56. Thomas Frick, “J. G. Ballard, The Art of Fiction No. 85,” Paris Review, Winter 1984.

57. John Baxter, The Inner Man, p 182.

58. Burroughs to Claude Pélieu, Apr 23, 1967, Papers, Box 77, Folder 8, Item 61.

59. The Unicorn Books Trial has been explored in depth by Mike Holliday in “A Dirty and Diseased Mind”: The Unicorn Bookshop Trial” and in a post to the J.G. Ballard Yahoo group on Sept 16, 2011.

60. Ballard, annotations in the Re/Search edition of The Atrocity Exhibition.

61. Larry Wallrich and Eric Mottram, eds., For Bill Butler, London, Wallrich Brooks, 1970.

62. Eric Mottram to Burroughs, July 31, 1968: “At the Soft Machine reception you very kindly suggested that you would like to contribute to the fund for Bill Butler and his Unicorn Bookshop trial (hearing August 20, Brighton).” Papers, Box 80, Folder 1, Item 1.

63. Oliver Pritchett, “The Writer Tomorrow,” The Guardian, August 11, 1969.

64. Norman Spinrad, An Experiment in Autobiography, p 28.

65. John Calder to Burroughs, October 9, 1969, Papers, Box 47, Folder 21, Item 6.

66. Andy Darling, “Another Girl: Fourteen Star Punters Select Their All-Time Greatest Gig,” Q magazine 106, July 1995, p 36.

67. Simon Matthews, “I Helped Carry William Burroughs to the Medical Tent: More on the ‘Pirate’ Radio Stations of the 1960s” in Lobster 59, Summer 2010.

68. Mick Davis, in “The view from the Mud. Recollections of those who attended Phun City.”

69. Burroughs to Brion Gysin, August 9, 1970, Papers, Box 86, Folder 13.

70. Jerome Tarshis, “Krafft-Ebing Visits Dealey Plaza: The Recent Fiction of J.G. Ballard,” Evergreen Review, 17:96, Spring 1973.

71. Rae.

72. Fred Jordan to Burroughs, June 13, 1972, Papers, Box 3, Folder 7, Item 3.

73. Papers, Box 3, Folder 7, Item 5.

74. Jo Stanley, “Ballard Crashes,” Friends, 29 May 1970, pp 4-5.

75. Personal communication from Carl Weissner.

76. Ballard to Weissner, July 17, 1969, Carl Weissner archive at Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections Northwestern University Library, Box 1, Folder 3.

77. Ballard, annotation in Re/Search edition of The Atrocity Exhibition.

78. Michael Moorcock, Email, May 15, 2011.

79. Telegram, Fred Jordan to Burroughs, June 21, 1972, Papers, Box 3, Folder 7, Item 4.

80. “I was waiting there in someone else’s writing”: Burroughs, “The Use of…,” Papers, Box 16, Folder 34, Item 1. Dream: Burroughs, “June 18, 1972,” Box 16, Folder 35, Item 2. Polaroid camera: Burroughs, “Five Photos Taken,” Box 44, Folder 07, Item 01.

81. Burroughs, draft of introduction to archive catalogue reproduced online in Stephen J. Gertz, “Living with Burroughs.”

82. Papers possesses Burroughs’ copy of The Atrocity Exhibition, as well as two unannotated author copies of Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A.

83. Drafts in Papers, Box 3, Folder 6, Items 1 & 2, and Box 3, Folder 8, Item 6.

84. Michael Moorcock, Email, May 15, 2011.

85. Paul Theroux, “The Auto Crash as Sexual Stimulation,” New York Times, October 29, 1972.

86. Alan Burns, “The Imagination On Trial: J.G. Ballard,” circa 1973-74 interview with Ballard reproduced in Burns, The Imagination on Trial: British and American Writers Discuss Their Working Methods, London, Allison & Busby, 1981.

87. Robert Nye, “Gerhardie Revisited,” The Guardian, July 9, 1970.

88. Brendan Hennessy, “J.G. Ballard,” Transatlantic Review 39, 1971.

89. Ballard to Michael Butterworth, January 21 & 29, 1967, letters held in Michael Butterworth and J G Ballard Correspondence: 1965-1975, British Library.

90. Ballard to Michael Butterworth, January 2, 1966, British Library.

91. Ballard to Michael Butterworth, dated by MB as “probably late 1975,” British Library.

92. Burroughs to Michael Gentile, April 22, 1979, William S. Burroughs Papers Spec.Cms.40, Ohio State University, Box 7, Folder 35.

93. “Interview with Graham Revell” (spring 1985), Conversations p 318.

94. See especially Author Q&A with Tim Adler on bloomsbury.com.

95. Rae.

96. Burroughs, “Hemingway,” The Adding Machine: Selected Essays, New York, Arcade Publishing, 1993, p 65. Ballard reviewed this book for The Guardian.

97. Philip Dodd, “The Meaningless Universe Demands Meaningless Acts,” Night Waves, BBC Radio 3, October, 2003.

98. “Just What They’ve Always Wanted…,” The Guardian, December 24, 1993, p 12.

Written and published by RealityStudio on 7 March 2012.

7 thoughts on “William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard

  1. A superb work of extrapolation, heavily-researched and fascinating. Kudos. And GREAT to see a photo of the two men together after far too long…well done on tracking that down.

  2. Excellent piece …. best perspective on Bill and Jim I’ve ever read… they were a bit ‘worlds apart’ really but, planetary chaos in the 60’s working on the miniature orrery of London literary life had to make them collide ever so gently with no harm done….. and good to see Bill Butler ascendant … he was at Phun City as well, scheduled to read but never did because the inflatable tent wasn’t ready ..in fact, it is debatable that there were any readings done and as for the anecdote (footnote 68) about Burroughs being carried to the medical tent..it is a figment.. if that had happened Butler would have told me about it.

  3. Thanks so much for the comment, particularly about WSB overdosing. That story seems to originate with one source so it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s apocryphal or just plain wrong. Burroughs himself didn’t refer to it when writing to Gysin shortly after Phun City.

  4. A first rate job on uncovering the connections and intersection points of who many consider the most important writers and creative thinkers of the 20th century. When I asked Burroughs about Ballard in class I was expecting a rather long answer about the similarities, and maybe his own take on some of Ballard’s ideas, so I was a bit taken aback at his positive, yet oh so brief remarks. One can only imagine though what an arranged discussion with these two prophets would have been like.

  5. Thank You for such an excellent and informative piece of work – it was a pleasure to read!

    If I may be allowed to offer a couple of small ‘footnotes’ that may be of interest:

    Graham Masterton also gives us a sighting of WSB’s mystery boyfriend – in the Introduction to his novel ‘Rules of Duel’ he talks about his friendship with Burroughs and visiting him in Duke Street, where:
    “We would sit in his apartment over a meal that was served by a sulky young boy with L-O-V-E tattooed on his knuckles…”

    And recently I was introduced to Liz Ellliot, who was married to Brian Barritt (probably remembered best as author of ‘The Road of Excess’, and friend & collaborator with Timothy Leary.) Liz used to run a stall in Kensington Market at the same time as Alex Trocchi, and comparing notes it sounds like she & my mother moved in overlapping circles for a while (similar to Stewart Home’s ill-fated mother, Julia Callan-Thompson.)

    Shortly after meeting Liz I was sent a copy of Global Tapestry Journal #34 which features an article about Liz’s memories by our mutual friend John Power. It includes several mentions of William Burroughs (as well as Trocchi, Leary, Barritt, etc.), including the following which is of some relevance to the above:

    “…The festival was in Worthing and called ‘Phun City’, and where Burroughs maintained his well-known persona of a wheezing cardboard cut-out, playing, on that occasion, with a portable tape-recorder…”

    (And no mention of any OD or being carried to the medical tent either!)

  6. In December 2012, Sotheby’s is selling an archive of material from Bill Butler’s estate that contains correspondence with Ballard related to WHY I WANT TO FUCK RONALD REAGAN.


    In the essay (above), I speculated that Harold Hayes, editor of Esquire, visited Ballard during Hayes’ trip to Europe in March 1968. A letter in the Sotheby’s lot confirms this.

    Mike Holiday visited Sotheby’s to review the material and posted a description of the correspondence to the JGB Yahoo list on 7 Dec 2012. Holiday describes a letter “presumably from the first half of 1968” confirming that Harold Hayes visited Ballard in March 1968.

    Holiday writes:

    “Then another undated letter, presumably from the first half of 1968, in which Ballard tells Butler that he has run out of copies of the Reagan pamphlet and sends him a cheque for more copies. He also mentions that Harold Hayes, the editor of Esquire, visited him in Shepperton and fell out of his chair when he read the Reagan piece.”

    Given that Hayes definitely visited Ballard, it seems likely that it was during their meeting that they discussed the prospect of Ballard writing a profile of Burroughs for Esquire. Consequently, the supper that Ballard shared with Burroughs at Duke Street — meeting the boyfriend with LOVE/HATE tattoos, glimpsing the laundry van on the street, etc — likely took place after March 1968. The essay (above) hypothesizes that the supper took place in fall 1968, after Burroughs returned from the Chicago Democratic convention. This letter in the Sotheby’s archive lends weight to the idea that the supper took place no earlier than March or April.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *