I heard on the radio earlier today about the death of J.G. Ballard and the news saddened me. I interviewed him once in his Shepperton home and he was a remarkably nice man who bore scant resemblance to the dystopian universe he celebrated in his earliest, best, and most influential books like Drought, Crash, and High Rise. But his surroundings were dystopian enough.
The day that I visited Shepperton involved my first London train trip off the Underground system and onto the beleaguered suburban rail service. It was an Ealing Comedy/Passage to Pimlico style journey back into the 1950s.
I got off at Shepperton station, a sleepy spot, and made my way through slightly down-at-heel suburbia to Ballard's street. It was a respectable bourgeois lane except for one terraced house in need of a lick of paint and a few days work on a front lawn which had surrendered into a meadowland of wild grass and weeds. Parked triumphantly in the middle of all of this was an ancient 60s Wolsley car. I'd clearly arrived at the Ballard home.
He was, of course, expecting me and came to the door without delay, a somewhat avuncular retired British colonel sort of a man. I was ushered into his living room where a bottle of whiskey was presented and the conversation rolled along at a laid-back rate. He was in no hurry to get rid of me and, when we'd had a few shots, he produced a shop-bought cake and a pot of tea.
The room was dominated by a copy of The Violation by a Belgian surrealist, Paul Delvaux. The original had been destroyed during the Blitz in 1940, and Ballard had commissioned an artist friend to make a copy from a photograph. I thought it was utterly dreadful but Ballard's obvious enthusiasm for surrealism was a telling insight into his early work.
I think, contrary to most of his admirers' idea of the man, that he was a politically conservative person. His championing of William Burroughs and of countercultural life in general was admirable. His science fiction was hugely well written and influential. I doubt if England, a country he correctly perceived as a finished place, will produce many more writers with his vision or range.