Prophet of social pathology

Ballard with Burroughs, 1988

Dalrymple notes that J.G. Ballard, who was briefly a medical student but gave up to become a writer, was born in Shanghai in 1930 and interned in a Japanese camp there in 1943.

Having previously lived the comfortable life of the rich and privileged expatriate in a poor country, he became sensitive as no one else in contemporary letters to the fragility of our well-ordered existence.

Many of his books record

the barbarism which lies just below the surface of our apparently civilised conduct, and which our highly technological society favours because of its tendency to isolate us emotionally from one another.

Ballard with Borges, c. 1972

Ballard, writes Dalrymple,

is the prophet of social pathology, particularly among the educated middle classes: the vile behaviour of middle-class football supporters, for example, would not surprise him in the least.

Dalrymple says he feels some kind of personal connection with Ballard because his grandfather, a doctor, was in Shanghai at the time that Ballard was in the camp.

Doctors figure prominently in Ballard’s fiction, and

do not behave better than others—far from it; and the fact that they so frequently behave badly, or at least not well, is symbolic of how fragile the author thinks that their ethical standards are, and therefore (since doctors are generally so highly regarded by the rest of society) how fragile all ethical standards are. We should not forget that many Japanese and German doctors committed some of the most sadistic atrocities of all.

Ballard at his home in Shepperton in 1965. Note the bottle of Johnnie Walker at left. Asked if it was difficult reducing his consumption slightly — shifting the time of the first whisky of the day from 9am to noon — he replied: ‘It was like the Battle of Stalingrad.’

The Ballard family home at 31 Amherst Avenue in Shanghai. It was built in 1925. This is how it looked — dilapidated — when Ballard returned to the city to film a documentary at the beginning of the 1990s. The house has now been gutted by developers.

Ballard in front of his Shepperton semi

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