"Terrorism, the British Psyche and the M25" by Giles Whittell, in The Times [section 2] (November 8, 2001), 5. Short interview occasioned by the publication of The Complete Short Stories.
Terrorism, the British Psyche and the M25.
He predicted global warming and the rise of arbitrary terror. From 'Malibu on Thames', J.G. Ballard tells Giles Whittell what he thinks will happen to us next Bombs fall. Civilians die. Well-intentioned politicians struggle to explain themselves. When it is happening in real time, with real agonies leading the news, it can be hard to recall how often it has happened before and how seldom it is clear who holds the moral high ground.
It's not so hard for J.G. Ballard, though. When the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, in August 1945, vaporising the city and its inhabitants, he was a teenager in the Lunghua Japanese internment camp near Shanghai, fearful that he and his parents would be murdered by their guards if the war dragged on much longer.
"I saw American power," he says, staring back across the intervening 56 years from behind a writing table in his house in Shepperton, West London. "I felt I'd been saved by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Everybody back here was opposed to them but I knew they'd saved my life and were going to save the lives of everyone in this country. We owed everything to American power." Hiroshima ended the chapter in Ballard's life that formed him and inspired what he calls his one "mega bestseller", Empire of the Sun, the novelised autobiography, filmed by Steven Spielberg, of an English boy in wartime Shanghai.
Something in that mushroom cloud must also have burnt a spyhole for him into the future, for he has been peering forward, relentlessly and with astonishing prescience, ever since. He was writing about global warming 40 years before the Kyoto accords; warning the world in splendidly graphic language about Ronald Reagan as a potential President before Reagan was even Governor of California; and crafting dark visions of technocratic elites at risk from arbitrary terror long before the New York and Washington attacks.
On the strength of this record alone it is worthwhile -if not heartening -to hear what he thinks happens to us next. "I've said many times in recent years that I see a world of mind-numbing boredom, of total suburbanisation of the planet, interrupted by totally unpredicted acts of violence," he says.
He was at home on September 11, alerted to the attacks by his girlfriend of 40 years, who happened to be watching them live on CNN on 15 screens in the Harrods audiovisual department as a violent cartoon was shown to shoppers on six other screens. The image has stayed with him almost as vividly as those of the attacks themselves.
"No one wants to say so," he continues, "but I think there is a clash of civilisations here. We've got on the one hand this infantilised entertainment culture represented by America, and on the other -- what's the tactful way to put it? -- an Islamic race that feels itself threatened.
"We may also be watching the beginning of the end of the era of comparative peace and sanity created 200 years ago by the Enlightenment. It seems that the Enlightenment is being challenged and has nothing to answer. Appeals to reason, sanity and scientific progress mean nothing to someone with a fanatical grudge against existence."
It's bleak, but not that bleak, because Ballard also insists that Islamic terrorism is a sign of desperation; of a doomed rejection of modernity. In fact his hour-long interpretation of the dreadful present ends on a note of unexpected optimism. "If you look at the Christian religion, it secularised itself from within," he says. "And it may be that far from affirming the power and strength of Islam, the September 11 atrocities betray the first sense that Islam is fallible and in due course will secularise itself, too."
And this is good? Absolutely, he says. "We have got to move the administration of moral codes away from religion into secular society. The countries of the West have largely benefited from that. We have legislation that ensures we treat each other as fairly and humanly as possible. Rights given to women, children and the poor are no longer in the gift of religion. They're embedded in our law."
"Jim", as those who know him call him, is a one-man think-tank and the author of 26 books that make up one of the most valuable backlists in publishing. That list now includes a heavy 1,400-page volume of his collected short stories, a sponge for four decades of thinking by our most acute clairvoyant.
He has been called a surrealist and even been pigeonholed as a science-fiction writer, but both labels miss the mark. He writes about the real world as it surges into the future led by science, and the result is a dizzying breadth of subject matter covering most of our mass neuroses and plenty of more private ones, from air disasters and assassinations to the transmogrification of northern Europe into a giant theme park as its inhabitants migrate to the Med and choose to stay there.
Interviewing him is like walking into one of his stories. You are treated to an elegant bombardment of surprises that float around the room sustained by force of intellect and the power of his imagination; a sort of Ballard helium.
Surprise number one is his house, which is much mentioned in the cuttings but still somehow shocking when you see it. He gets six-figure advances, sells film rights to Hollywood royalty and could easily afford a Notting Hill pile decked out by Philippe Starck. Instead he has lived and worked since 1960 in the same unaltered semi five minutes' walk from Shepperton station. (It's not even in good nick. An estate agent would swallow hard before writing out the particulars.) Why Shepperton, I ask, expecting a self-effacing answer about inertia and a writer's need for peace. He replies with a spectacular riff on modern England that begins with Bernard Braden, a Canadian comedian who called Shepperton "the Malibu of the Thames".
"I thought that sounded rather good," says Ballard. "It lodged Shepperton in my mind as a sort of glamorous place. There were film studios here that offered another dimension to the crushing boredom of English suburbia. It was more modern in spirit, with its airport architecture and dual carriageways, and video rentals and wife-swapping..."
"Yes. And don't ask if I partook. I've watched change here, and it's the M25. That's the spirit of England today. It's CCTV cameras, executive estates, hypermarkets on ring roads. What happens in Muswell Hill or Fulham doesn't matter a damn. It's what happens out in the M3/M4 triangle, among these science parks and industrial estates and marinas, that shapes the psychology of this country. That's what Thatcher realised and Blair completely realises. That's the England you've got to satisfy, that's why the British people, barring an incredible catastrophe, are never going to vote Tory again."
Ballard is 71, with three children and four grandchildren. "He's a Conservative," one of my colleagues said, but his stubborn fascination with the modern is more reminiscent of Tony Benn's. Change is his specialism, and he is actually better known for studying it on the Cote d'Azur than in the Thames Valley.
His last novel, Super-Cannes, was lavishly admired for its creepy depiction of a real-life high-tech business park in the hills above the Riviera, and for the all-too-credible cancer of violence that he grafted on to it. He has been visiting the South of France almost yearly since 1946, "and I've watched it change from an area devoted to leisure to one devoted to work", he says.
"You get into a lift in Nice or Cannes and the people next to you are Volvo dealers or heart surgeons, literally. All the big hotels are year-round conference hotels and there's a huge infrastructure of science parks and motorways and airports. It's goodbye F. Scott Fitzgerald, sadly." And hello to what he calls "the directorial class; the share-options brigade". In life as in his book they have swarmed to the hillside Utopias put up by the French Government to attract them, "and they think it's paradise, but it isn't. They're utterly vulnerable to any fanatic, and they're vulnerable to destruction from within because they're not sustained by any of the com-munity interactions that actually keep people sane. You can't live for work alone."
Ballard now works a leisurely three hours a day, enough for one new novel every two or three years. He seems surprised by the commercial success of Super-Cannes and its predecessor, Cocaine Nights, but they are seductively readable. He is no longer the literary Damien Hirst he was with The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), an experimental compilation, including a plan for the assassination of Jackie Kennedy, and the outrageous "Why I Want to F**k Ronald Reagan", which eerily foresaw Reagan's mastery of political body language.
Nelson Doubleday, his New York publisher, pulped the entire American hardback print run of The Atrocity Exhibition, while in Britain, Lord Goodman threatened to prosecute Ballard for committing a public mischief.
"I look back on all that," he says, "and I think, 'what a funny little place'." This is the Ballard who returned to England from China aged 15, and felt as if he was "looking down the wrong end of a telescope". Everything was tiny, he says, including people's minds. "They talked as if they'd won the war, but acted as if they'd lost it. They were all completely locked into this strangulating class system."
It is a system from which Ballard feels mercifully cut loose by his international childhood. He abhors the monarchy and hereditary titles. He would like to see public schools abolished. He studied medicine, not "Eng. Lit." at Cambridge. He doesn't feel a member of the Barnes/McEwan/Amis fiction club (though he knows "young Martin" because he used to lunch most weeks with his father, Kingsley), and he doesn't mind. He feels he doesn't share their interests, though time has shown that an avid readership shares his.