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Author J.G. Ballard Dies After Lengthy Illness

Author J.G. Ballard Dies After Lengthy Illness Ben Hoyle, London Times Arts Correspondent

Pinteresque, Dickensian, Shakespearean. Not many writers are so distinctive and influential that their name becomes an adjective in its own right. J. G. Ballard, who died yesterday morning after a long battle with cancer at the age of 79, was one of them.

“Ballardian” is defined in the Collins English Dictionary as: “adj) 1. of James Graham Ballard (born 1930), the British novelist, or his works (2) resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.”

His influence stretched across a modern world that he seemed to see coming years in advance.

His dark, often shocking fiction predicted the melting of the ice caps, the rise of Ronald Reagan, terrorism against tourists and the alienation of a society obsessed with new technology.

As Martin Amis once said of him: “Ballard is quite unlike anyone else; indeed, he seems to address a different — a disused — part of the reader's brain.”

The bands Joy Division, Radiohead, The Normal, Klaxons and Buggles all wrote records inspired by Ballard stories.

Empire of the Sun, his best known book, was something of an anomaly for being an apparently straightforward account of his childhood in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War, where he endured near starvation, death marches and regularly bore witness to death and brutality.

However just as the events it described (with considerable artistic licence) helped to mould his unique view of the world, so the book’s success proved to be a watershed in his career.

Born in Shanghai, Ballard was educated at Cambridge before becoming an RAF pilot, advert agency copywriter, encyclopaedia salesman and assistant editor of the scientific journal Chemistry and Industry. In the first part of his career he was an underground writer who achieved some success in the 1970s with three novels — Crash, High Rise and Concrete Island — that he finessed and reconstructed from work he had written earlier.

Empire of the Sun, which won several literary prizes, brought him a mainstream following, which grew further when Steven Spielberg turned the memoir into a film in 1987.

After that he became superficially a different writer from the blazing visionary of his earlier work but attentive readers found that more recent novels such as Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes simply hid their subversiveness more carefully. His last book was Miracles of Life, an autobiography. The title refers to his three children. He raised them after his wife Mary died suddenly of pneumonia in 1964, dropping them at their suburban school every morning and then charging home to write twisted science-fiction or plan the “art exhibition” with wrecked cars and a topless model with which he roadtested the ideas in Crash.

In a memoir he wrote: “Alcohol was a close friend and confidant in the early days; I usually had a strong Scotch and soda when I had driven the children to school and sat down to write after nine. In those days I finished drinking at about the time today that I start. A friendly microclimate unfurled itself from the bottle of Johnnie Walker and encouraged my imagination to emerge from its burrow.”

Ballard shunned the gossipy London literary circuit, preferring the company of a few close friends and family.

He lived for most of his adult life at the same house in Shepperton on the Western fringes of London before moving in with his girlfriend Claire Fisher a few months ago. Margaret Hanbury, his agent for more than 25 years, said that he died there at about 7am yesterday.

“J. G. Ballard has been a giant on the world literary scene for more than 50 years,” she said. “Every week I was doing contracts with Poland, Russia, Japan or China. He was a global brand.”