John Walsh: 'JG Ballard was our own private, Home Counties, prophet of doom'

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Support Analyst - London - £22,000

£20000 - £22000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chel...

KS2 Primary Teacher Plymouth

£21500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd...

Primary Teacher Cornwall

£21500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: ***KS1 & KS2 Teachers ...

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album