The sage of Shepperton

<strong>Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton (An Autobiography) </strong>

J G Ballard <em>Fou

In life, as in his fiction, J G Ballard has always seen the skull beneath the skin. Among his first memories of Shanghai, where he was born in 1930, are the sight of council trucks collecting the corpses of the destitute who had died on the city's pavements and his discovery in a burial mound of a lidless coffin with a skeleton inside.

His father ran the China Printing and Finishing Company, and his mother was once voted the best-dressed woman in the city. The family lived in a half-timbered stockbroker's villa just beyond the international settlement, with ten servants. They dined on roast beef - the first time Ballard ate Chinese food was in England - and his parents drank steadily from a pantry resembling "a medium-sized off-licence". When he was writing Empire of the Sun, Ballard mentioned the "two-Martini lunch" to his mother: "Five Martinis," she corrected. He has maintained the tradition, and though in favour of cannabis in principle, in practice he prefers whisky.

School was equally English, complete with a sadistic clerical headmaster. Once, given lines as a punishment, he found it quicker to invent than to copy, provoking the response: "Next time, Ballard, don't copy your lines from some trashy novel." He loved to explore the city on his bicycle, and soon after Pearl Harbor he came upon a ruined casino, which seemed "more real than it had when it was thronged with gamblers and dancers", and became an important image in his work, along with abandoned hotels and drained swimming pools.

His most formative experience was, of course, the two and a half years he spent at Lunghua, the Japanese-run internment camp a few miles outside the city. Inevitably resembling "a half-ruined college campus", Lunghua was traumatic for his parents and left young Jim in poor health, but after the rigours of an expat childhood he found it "relaxed and easygoing". It vastly expanded his acquaintance, inspired his greatest fictional success - Empire of the Sun sold more than all his other books combined - and explained his decision to live for nearly half a century in a small, modern house at Shepperton.

After such an adventure, postwar England, with its "putty-faced" people, ruined cities and what he initially assumed were perambulators, but which turned out to be cars, was a tremendous disappointment. It seemed a defeated place, and Ballard seriously wonders now if Britain should have gone to war in 1939: we did not save Poland, and it would have been better to wait for Russia to break Germany. (On the other hand, he has no qualms about Hiroshima.)

England, it seemed, was crippled by "ancestor worship" and "a sense of overpowering deference". These sins were particularly evident at Cambridge, where he read medicine, and which he loathed for its snobbery, homosexuality and bad food. After two years he left to read English at Queen Mary College, London - "the worst possible preparation for a writer's career".

Ballard wanted to write, but was undecided about form: "Popular fiction was too popular," he recalls of the 1950s, "and literary fiction was too earnest." After stints as an advertising copywriter, Covent Garden porter and encyclopaedia salesman, he trained as an RAF pilot in the frozen wastes of Canada, where he came across science fiction depicting future worlds colonised by hellish American optimism. Inspired by surrealism and pop art, he decided to apply sci-fi to the present, to "the pathology that underlay the consumer society, the TV landscape and the nuclear arms race, a vast untouched continent of fictional possibility".

He left the RAF, married, had children, settled at Shepperton, and began a literary career that gradually flourished. After the death of his young wife, which roughly coincided with that of JFK, his work took a darker turn in The Atrocity Exhibition, which earned him fashionable notoriety. Randolph Churchill, a friend of the Kennedys, objected to his story "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy", while his American publisher, a friend of the then governor of California, refused to publish "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan".

Ballard became friendly with such sci-fi contemporaries as Michael Moorcock and Kingsley Amis, though the latter relationship was clouded by Amis's hatred of the French, the Jews, hippies and, "for some unfathomable reason, Brigid Brophy". Ballard himself evinces a similar dislike of the late Ian Hamilton, whom he cannot bring himself to name, but characterises as "a self-important Soho idler".

Miracles of Life ends with Ballard's admirably cold-eyed acceptance of his own mortality, in the form of terminal cancer. For such a modern writer, it's an old-fashioned book, doggedly chronological, acknowledging old debts and settling old scores. It is oddly moving, though, and essential reading for fans.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Naughty nation