Which author would be best placed to respond to this week's riots? My money would be on perhaps the greatest British post-war novelist of them all, and one who is unfortunately no longer with us: J.G. Ballard. For Ballard's novels, from 1975's High Rise to 2006's Kingdom Come have famously dealt with themes of social and personal unrest exploding out into violence and looting against a backdrop of alienating cityscapes and drab suburban towns. Kingdom Come was set in a shopping mall modelled on the Bentall Centre in Kingston, not a million miles aesthetically away from the retail park in Tottenham that got hit on Sunday night, with its ubiquitous high street stores: Currys, Next, B&Q. 'Civilised life,' Ballard once said, 'is based on a huge number of illusions in which we all collaborate willingly. The trouble is we forget after a while that they are illusions and we are deeply shocked when reality is torn down around us.' We have seen several illusions torn down recently.
There is, I would suggest, something distinctly Ballardian about the images we have become accustomed to watching on television of late: the blue wash of police lights, the orange fires, and the rioters themselves: fierce in black, mainly, on bikes or on foot, on high streets with their identikit shops or in urban wastelands - car parks, estates, back streets. The use of mobile phones and social networking sites is significant, too. Ballard was nothing if not a writer with a keen interest in the ways in which humans interact with technology, and sometimes perversely: not least in Crash, his most famous book, where the motor car affords new and violent opportunities for unconventional, disturbing sexual practices. The UK riots have been organised digitally and later viewed digitally: on CCTV and social networking sites. 'Sooner or later, everything turns into television,' as Ballard wrote in The Day of Creation.
In an interview Ballard once said: 'For the sake of my children and grandchildren, I hope that the human talent for self-destruction can be successfully controlled, or at least channelled into productive forms, but I doubt it. I think we are moving into extremely volatile and dangerous times, as modern electronic technologies give mankind almost unlimited powers to play with its own psychopathology as a game.' On the evidence of this week, it's hard to disagree.