In 1990, a young journalist visited the London suburb of Shepperton, to interview the great JG Ballard. Ballard took him to a pub for lunch and a chinwag and, on the way home, stopped at his local cashpoint. The journalist, being an enterprising (or, as we professionals call it, nosy) sort, glanced over Ballard's shoulder to read his on-screen balance. It was in seven figures, separated by two commas. The hack let out a whistle. Ballard asked why. "It was rude of me to look," said the man, "But why do have this colossal sum of money sitting in your current account?" "Why? Ballard innocently replied. "Where else would I put it?"
The money was the remainder of whatever he'd been paid by Steven Spielberg for the film rights to Empire of the Sun, released in Britain in 1987. And the author's blithe ignorance about matters of finance and personal investment was apparently typical. He was at once the most worldly of men and the most alien. He dressed like a raffish banker in grey suits, ties and loafers, and his vocal delivery was redolent of Surrey golf clubs in the 1950s. But he once wrote an essay called "Why I Would Like to Fuck Ronald Reagan", he foresaw the destabilising of the environment nearly 50 years ago, and he wrote a novel that explored the erotic thrill of driving, fast, into an oncoming car driven by Jayne Mansfield.
Ballard was our own private, home-grown Cassandra, crying woe-thrice-woe on the smug, the bourgeois, the pampered and over -civilised. In book after book (his late blooms like Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes and Millennium People, were essentially the same book,) he refined his conviction that the most civilised haunts of modern man will become breeding grounds of desperate violence. His unique vision derived from his experience of Chinese atrocities in the Shanghai of his childhood – the dead bodies in the suburban streets, the deserted playgrounds, the blending of civilisation and outrage – and made him look askance at every later expression of sophistication.
When I first met him, for an interview at the London Book Festival in 2000, he went into a reverie about his early days in London in 1946, especially the dense fug of cigarette smoke that routinely hung over diners in restaurants, viewers in cinemas, and travellers on buses. It was, he said, as if the whole postwar nation was in a narcotic trance. In the discussion that followed, he revealed his concern for "the country" as if Britain were a hospital patient. The recent bombing of a gay pub in Soho and of the MI5 building, were symptoms, he said, of a deep psychological malaise. It was the same upset-ness that had turned the nation crazy with grief when Princess Diana died. He saw social dislocation everywhere. He looked through the window of the modest house where he spent almost all his adult life, and watched civilisation falling apart. Whether it was the petrol crisis of 1999, the foot-and-mouth epidemic or the arrival of Big Brother (which he found a revelation because of its refusal to allow contestants to connect with anything interesting), everything seemed to confirm his predictions about the breakdown of civilised society.
Years later, when his final memoir Miracles of Life was published, I rang him to set up another meeting, but he was too ill to oblige; I was gratified to learn that he remembered, if not my sparkling conversation, at least something I used to own: "Of course I remember you," he said, "Blue Chrysler Cruiser, wasn't it?" He went on puzzling over the significance of social phenomena to the end of his life – small revolutions of style, random elevations of celebrity, a change in the temperature of the world. "Jim's new obsession is Jordan," his agent Maggie Hanbury told me last year. "He keeps saying, 'But what does it mean when someone like that is admired by young women as well as by boys? What does it say about what we've become?"
Ms Hanbury revealed that Jordan, or Katie Price, was also a client of hers. Perhaps, I suggested, we should get the two of them on stage, in conversation at a literary festival? The pin-up and the sage of global entropy, together at last. I should have made it happen. Ballard would have been entranced. He was just so interested in everything.