Behind Every Brilliant Writer…
Posted by Mel Campbell on April 20, 2009
Claire Walsh (right) with Michael Moorcock (left) and JG Ballard (centre), in September, 2006. Image: Linda Moorcock, via Ballardian.
This is just a quick, fragmentary and unfinished musing, since I’m technically on deadline today. As you may know, game-changing British author JG Ballard died yesterday of prostate cancer, from which he’d suffered since 2006. This is a real tragedy: Ballard was a man of letters who wasn’t just controversial for the sake of public attention, nor out of the nihilism that I tend to see in his heirs such as Michel Houellebecq and Chuck Palahniuk. Rather, in writing things that were deliberately repugnant and offensive, Ballard provoked readers into considering the savagery that underpins our tenuously civilised society.
But more curiously, amid all the obituaries I haven’t read very much about Ballard’s partner of over 40 years, Claire Walsh. Many obits have mentioned that Ballard’s wife, Helen Matthews (referred to as Mary in some obits), died suddenly of pneumonia in 1964 during a family holiday, leaving Ballard to raise their three children alone. (Her death seems to be represented as some kind of dystopian watershed for Ballard, whose most notorious work, The Atrocity Exhibition, was written in the years immediately after her death.)
I only found out about Claire’s existence in an interview that Ballard’s friend of many years, the SF novelist Michael Moorcock, gave to Amazon following Ballard’s death.
“He leaves a partner, Claire Walsh, who was his companion for over forty years and nursed him through his long illness,” Moorcock said.
From what I’ve been able to piece together in the one-line mentions of Walsh in various Ballard obituaries, she is a journalist, and she and Ballard didn’t live together until very recently, when he left his Shepperton home to move in with her. Presumably Ballard was very ill by this time.
There’s a telling paragraph in an interview Ballard gave in 1991 to Canada’s Sunday Times, that hints at the dynamic of their relationship:
Engaged in writing far from the mainstream and bringing up a family singlehanded, Ballard had to rely on women coming to him. “I didn’t have the freedom to move around a lot. I was not passive in my private life. It was just a matter of time-tables. Women had to take the initiative with me out here.” The female characters in the book are very strong.
Ballard has written fondly of Claire in his autobiographical novel The Kindness Of Women and in his straight memoir Miracles Of Life. As he revealed to author Iain Sinclair, he also fictionalised her in his novel Crash: “Claire is the basis of the character Catherine. Catherine Ballard. I remember, when I was writing the book, I said, ‘Shall I call the character based on you Claire?’ She said, ‘Umm, perhaps not.’ So I called her Catherine.”
Skimming through the mountains of online material about Ballard’s life and work, Claire appears as a hazy but shrewd presence. In the final years of his life, she became his representative, travelling internationally to meet exhibition curators when he was too ill to do so himself.
Claire’s simultaneous cultural presence and absence makes me wonder how much we still cling to that figure of the female “muse”. In an era when women didn’t have much political or cultural agency, being a writer or an artist’s muse must have carried its own kind of power.
However, these days it’s a feminist orthodoxy that women should pursue their own creativity rather than exercising it through men, especially when women in intimate relationships with creative men become their de facto representatives or assistants.
Here, I’m also thinking of the current film Summer Hours, in which a family matriarch has spent her entire life managing the artistic legacy of her beloved (and long-deceased) uncle, a famous Impressionist painter. There’s a strong sense in the film that this woman loves the dead man more than her own living children, and that being his muse has overshadowed her own life.
Still, should we criticise women who choose to maintain private lives and let their acclaimed partners have the limelight? Claire Walsh does not seem like a downtrodden or dim person; perhaps there is no media conspiracy involved in whitewashing her out of Ballard’s public life, but rather it has been her own choice not to participate in that particular circus.