the m john harrison blog

Month: December, 2011

anti promethean

That whole enterprise was a let-down. The star drive proved useful; but there was a war or two in consequence, and when, after some centuries’ travel, we reached the mysterious object at the edge of the universe it turned out to be an advert for hair gel.

martin, knights, wallinger

Went to see the Martins at the Tate & on the way out became interested in The Deluge, a coolly stylised disaster by Winifred Knights. Nice contrast. But both Knights & Martin were trumped by Mark Wallinger’s Threshold to the Kingdom, in which Miserere Mei, Deus plays over a slow motion visual of travellers emerging from the International Arrivals door at London City airport.

season’s greetings

From the staff & permanent residents at the Ambiente Hotel.

you’re lost

Some common moorland bird, I never knew its name, makes a strange piping two-note call. Clagged up in a tiny but brutally self-similar stretch of peat somewhere between the Chew Valley & Laddow Rocks, we would imitate the sound but substitute the words, “You’re lost”. Later, experience of advanced outdoor techniques like this made it impossible for me to be terrorised by The Blair Witch Project. Grappling to release Rebecca Solnit’s determined grip on the meanings of being lost, I suddenly remembered this, from Nick Flynn’s superb memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: “I see no end to being lost. You can spend your entire life simply falling in that direction… Once you make it back, if you make it back, you will stand before your long-lost friends but in some essential way they will no longer know you.” Could anyone wish for a happier ending ? (Except, of course, no longer knowing yourself ?)

Speaking of memory: it turns out that I’ve already blogged yesterday’s image. I apologise for that. If I took it down it would mean losing Louisey’s comment. So there it stays, a record of her generosity of spirit & the blinkeredness of my perspective.

answers to a questionnaire

I came late to this “Questionnaire of the Weird”, but here are my answers:

1: Write the first sentence of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
“It was a Saturday afternoon, about 2:19.”
2: Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
2:19.
3: Look at your watch. What time is it?
2:19.
4: How do you explain this—or these—discrepancy(ies) in time?
There is no dispcrepancy.
5: Do you believe in meteorological predictions?
I think it’s weird you would ask that. You don’t even know me.
6: Do you believe in astrological predictions?
No, I’m not fooled by all those false-colour images of gas clouds, & Prof. Brian Cox calling it the “You-in-Ee Verse”.
7: Do you gaze at the sky and stars by night?
Not in London.
8: What do you think of the sky and stars by night?
I think they’re the last place God made.
9: What were you looking at before starting this questionnaire?
“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit; then my friend S’s face, in dark, impasto-looking tones on Skype, which made her resemble a Munch madonna. Munch’s madonnas are, as someone once put it to me, “the Anima on a stick” & a great deal weirder than anything wilfully weird.
10: What do cathedrals, churches, mosques, shrines, synagogues, and other religious monuments inspire in you?
“Inspire” is a bit like “gaze” to me, the way you’ve used it in Question 7 above. I don’t really get it.
11: What would you have “seen” if you’d been blind?
I don’t know. But there are plenty of things I would have missed seeing. Dogs. A girder. Two or three larks going up & down like elevators over some upland landscape. Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site. Windmills, linocuts, bees. A bus. A wrist. The list is endless.
12: What would you want to see if you were blind?
To start with, at least, I would want to see some indication that I wasn’t seeing: so, darkness, maybe, or like that. Weirdly enough, my cat went blind not long ago.
13: Are you afraid?
I have deep & constant anxiety.
14: What of?
I was afraid of the dark until I started night-running on moors & hills in the late 1970s. Once you become anxious about putting your foot down a hole in the dark & breaking your ankle, you stop being anxious about just the dark; the vague & generalised is replaced by the actual & practical. Now I’m afraid of the usual things, loneliness, pain, death.
15: What is the last weird film you’ve seen?
Scorcese, No Direction Home.
16: Whom are you afraid of?
I am afraid of everyone.
17: Have you ever been lost?
See answer to Question 9, but also I am an expert at it (see answer to Question 14). At least as much of an expert as Rebecca Solnit, although she is a great deal more articulate about it than me.
18: Do you believe in ghosts?
I don’t.
19: What is a ghost?
A ghost is content. It is subject matter, or grist to your mill.
20: At this very moment, what sound(s) can you here, apart from the computer?
Quite complex tinitus, left ear. A high-pitched whine, like the one you hear after a loud gig. Under that, a sort of hiss such as you might have heard from a valve radio knocked off-station in 1953. Behind that, quite a long way back, various bangs & rumbles I take to be the circulation of the blood, or perhaps a small unacknowledged war taking place a mile or two off in East Sheen.
21: What is the most terrifying sound you’ve ever heard: for example, “the night was like the cry of a wolf”?
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced terror. Certainly not from a sound. But I have a well-honed startle reflex, see answer to Question 13, & any high-attack sound will stimulate it.
22: Have you done something weird today or in the last few days?
No. But I have done uncanny things.
23: Have you ever been to confession?
No.
24: You’re at confession, so confess the unspeakable.
“Weird” is a word for a kind of content or subject matter I often visit, though I have no personal relationship with the weird now except to make metaphors. I went through a period when I couldn’t have HP Lovecraft on my shelves. If I had him on my shelves I would read him. If I read him I wouldn’t be able to sleep. The same was true of Arthur Machen, although it was never true of Robert Aickman because by the time I got to Aickman my life had steadied me down a little. In a sense, he’s too clever to be frightening; in another sense, something like “The Swords” is so uncanny that you know you are probably avoiding the issue so as to remain calm.
25: Without cheating: what is a “cabinet of curiosities”?
Perhaps it’s a cabinet in which you keep curiosities. Have you read “The Hare with Amber Eyes” ? It’s the history of 264 netsuke, displayed for part of their life in a cabinet in Vienna to show off the taste of their owner–to make their owner interesting by association. It’s been quite a bestseller but I found it, in the end, to be a sort of bland imitation of WG Sebald. Anyway, perhaps that’s what a cabinet of curiosities is: a place to keep the things which make you look interesting by association. Or comparison.
26: Do you believe in redemption?
I do, but I don’t know why. For me, redemption is like some aspects of the sublime: I try not to revisit or acknowledge them, in case I taint them with the anti-sublime.
27: Have you dreamed tonight?
I believe so.
28: Do you remember your dreams?
Not always.
29: What was your last dream?
I don’t remember.
30: What does fog make you think of?
I haven’t seen any really high class fog for a long time. The kind that, if it’s in a city, sets everything at one remove and makes it so interesting again; or the kind that, if it’s on a moor, you think: shit, which direction was I going in before this happened, see answer to Question 9 ?
31: Do you believe in animals that don’t exist?
Do you mean made-up animals ? Why would I believe or not believe in them ?
32: What do you see on the walls of the room where you are?
Skull Radio & Mexican Death TV.
33: If you became a magician, what would be the first thing you’d do?
I haven’t any idea.
34: What is a madman?
One of the people in charge of the asylum.
35: Are you mad?
All I’m sure of today is that I’m not in charge of the asylum.
36: Do you believe in the existence of secret societies?
It isn’t really necessary to believe in the existence of secret societies for them to exist.
37: What was the last weird book you read?
“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit.
38: Would you like to live in a castle?
Yes. I would also like to live in a beach hut.
39: Have you seen something weird today?
I haven’t. But I keep wanting to call you “darling”. For instance, in answer to Question 54 below, What goes on in tunnels ?, I wanted to reply, “I don’t know, darling. I’m so rarely in one.” Isn’t that odd ? I find it odd.
40: What is the weirdest film you’ve ever seen?
Do you mean weird ? Or do you mean Weird ? Anyway, I will always have a soft spot for the Brothers Quay’s Institute Benjamenta. I several times tried to watch it with a girlfriend when it first came out on DVD, but we kept having sex halfway through & I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the end. But it certainly looked weird.
41: Would you like to live in an abandoned train station?
Curiously enough, I addressed this question a year or two ago, here.
42: Can you see the future?
I can, yes, & it works.
43: Have you considered living abroad?
Once or twice.
44: Where?
Spain. Mexico.
45: Why?
Because they are warmer & more human than London.
46: What is the weirdest film you’ve ever owned?
Repo Man.
47: Would you liked to have lived in a vicarage?
Not especially.
48: What is the weirdest book you’ve ever read?
“The Flight from the Enchanter”, Iris Murdoch.
49: Which do you like better, globes or hourglasses?
I wouldn’t have any use for either. I don’t know what the weird has to do with the mildly bizarre or whimsical.
50: Which do you like better, antique magnifying glasses or bladed weapons?
I’d rather have a new magnifying glass if I needed one. I own an entry-level survival knife. I would like an ESEE-3MIL with a carbon steel blade & a sharpened back edge. But my favourite knife of mine is a 465 Puma Backpacker, circa 1980, which I have managed not to lose all those years. I climbed with a guy called Jeremy who used to be a butcher, so he sharpened everyone’s knives for them. Worried by a certain vagueness he sensed in me, he kept mine blunt.
51: What, in all likelihood, lies in the depths of Loch Ness?
A layer of very cold water.
52: Do you like taxidermied animals?
Sometimes. But I don’t find them weird, & I don’t find myself weird for liking them. Generally I try not to associate myself with things as a way of gaining some of their presumed eros, see answer to Question 25.
53: Do you like walking in the rain?
I don’t dislike it.
54: What goes on in tunnels?
I don’t know, I’m so rarely in one.
55: What do you look at when you look away from this questionnaire?
Mexican Death TV.
56: What does this famous line inspire in you: “And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.”?
Nothing much.
57: Without cheating: where is that famous line from?
Is it famous ? How inappropriate of me not to remember.
58: Do you like walking in graveyards or the woods by night?
Apart from Pere Lachaise, and the really unheimlich two-level cemetery on the A628 outside Tintwhistle, Greater Manchester, I can take or leave graveyards. Running in woods at night can be as entertaining as running on moors at night, especially in the snow. Although I have to admit I haven’t done it for a couple of years. Some woodland is almost ludicrously Aickmanesque: that patch under Rhinog Fawr, for instance, into which you descend if you follow the Roman Steps path all the way east.
58: Write the last line of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
“I wish I’d kept those old clothes.”
59: Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
2:19.
60: Look at your watch. What time is it?
It’s always 2:19 in here.

how you use the space

“For God’s sake, Choe.”

“Go left out of here. Left!”

After a mile or so, he made me take the narrow gated road of the local North West Water catchment area. There, a bulky Victorian architecture of revetments, ramps and spillways petered out among broken vernacular walls, eroded gritstone earth, unsurfaced tracks: as if, anxious to warn his audience about the natural world and its encroachments, the architect had designed a steady, homilectic movement from order to chaos. Soon we were bumping along two ruts, hardcored with brick and crushed tarmac, which wound up steeply beneath black rock outcrops. I couldn’t see much. Rain flew into the headlamp beams like insects. Wind tore through the sedges and rocked the van on its suspension as it wallowed and strained against the gradient. “Fucking hell!” complained Choe. “I fucking hate the outside.” His face was pressed up against the windscreen. He seemed uncertain, nervy. “Right! No, go right!” The rain stopped, leaving a few clouds to redistribute the moonlight, which had given them the colour of a fish’s skin.

“Yes!” said Choe suddenly. “Not bad for someone who’s only been here twice.”

He made me stop the van. He got out. “Wait,” he ordered. He slammed the door, then called: “You can turn the engine off.”

To the left I could see as far as the faint, ghostly sweep of Morecambe Bay. To the right, beyond a stone wall in poor repair, the ground fell away steeply to open space and very distant streetlights flickering on the eastern slope of the watershed–Blackburn, Burnley, perhaps Colne. All I could hear was the wind rumbling across some large obstacle; the ticking of the engine as it cooled. Choe was gone for some time. The rain started again, harder than before, rattling and booming on the back panels of the van. I turned up the collar of my leather coat and watched the big clouds rush across the moon. The moor smelled like cinders. The wall seemed to go on for miles in both directions, punctuated by empty gateways opening on to nothing but rough pasture and bog-cotton. Suddenly Choe was hammering on the offside window. When I wound it down he shouted:

“We’ll not get the van near enough to tip the stuff over the top.”

I could hardly hear him. The rain had plastered his T shirt to his bony chest. Water was streaming down his face, so that his cheeks looked as if they had been peeled for some cheap cosmetic enhancement. His nose was running, he was shivering uncontrollably, and his eyes were full of excitement.

“We’ll have to carry it down.”

“What ?”

“I said we’ll have to carry it down!”

“I can’t hear you!”

“Weather won’t be so bad down there!”

He vanished. The back doors of the van burst open on a gust of freezing wind. He started to drag the boxes out.

“Come on Mick,” he said angrily. “Don’t fuck about.”

Then he was gone again.

I took a couple of boxes and scrambled awkwardly over the wall. Two feet the other side of it everything fell away without warning into a deep quarry choked with rhododendrons and young oak trees. It was a hundred and fifty feet down into darkness. There was no wire, no sign. The edge was marked only by some crumbling red blocks of stone and two or three stunted birches. For a minute or two all I could do was teeter there in the wind, soaked to the skin, so close to falling I couldn’t even speak. “Choe!” I managed to call eventually. “Choe, why don’t we just throw them off the top ?” But he had already started down, so I was forced to slither after him, clutching at the tangled rhododendron stems. Damp, friable brown soil soon caked my hands and feet. I dropped one of the boxes and had to feel about for it in the dark. Later, the whole episode would seem hallucinatory to me, a descent in more ways than one.

“Choe!”

At the bottom, worn aimless paths curved between heaps of spoil in the bluish, rain-dirty moonlight. Up under the steep sodden rock walls the earth was packed and hardened by years of use. Into it had been trodden a kind of light urban silt–layer after layer of smashed safety glass, broken battery cases, blue fertiliser bags, bedsprings rusted down to a powdery deposit, railway sleepers rotted and fibrous. Three or four burnt-out cars lay sprawled on their collapsed shock absorbers and rusty brake drums, as if they had maintained a perfectly straight and level stance during their fall from the ridge above, bounced once and come to rest. Burst laundry bags lay everywhere, children’s clothes spilling out of them across the standing puddles and flooded ruts.

“Choe!”

I remember thinking, Who would want to do this ? Who would want to do this ? But the worst was still to come.

“Choe ? Choe!”

A great frail wing of rock, like an eighty-foot razor blade, had caught itself years ago in the act of toppling from the main face and now, balanced precariously on a foundation of loose blocks, divided the quarry floor into two. When I walked cautiously round it, there was the real tip–one huge collapsing mound of plastic drums, bent strips of metal oxidised to white, cardboard boxes split and pulped by the rain, heavyweight plastic bags slashed open by the broken laboratory glassware inside, all resting in an expansive pool of water five or six feet deep and iridescent with escaped chemicals. There was a dead sheep in the shallows, bloated and grey. Around it floated literally hundreds of used latex gloves, their whitish transparent fingers ghostly as live squid in the dim light; swatches of asbestos waste like clumps of wool; detached biohazard labels the colour of willow leaves on a village pond. A thick, rotten smell came up, palpable as a touch, corrupt and chemical at one and the same time. But if I closed my eyes and listened to the rain, pattering straight down on half-submerged polyurethane and cardboard, it sounded as comforting and steady as rain on the roof of a garden shed.

“Choe ?”

I couldn’t see him.

“Choe ?”

“What ?” he said softly.

There he was–still as a lizard on a rock!–impossible to separate from his setting until I had understood the shape and size of it. He had got as close to the water as he could. His eyes were narrowed and one leg was tensed to bear his weight. The cardboard boxes rested negligently on his hip. I don’t know if I can describe the way he looked to me at that moment. He looked as if he was watching something, some animal that might be frightened away if we spoke loudly. At the same time he had the musing expression of a professional sailor wondering how he would navigate some small, newly-discovered sea.

“Choe ?”

“What ?”

And then, as if he had really said Don’t bother me now:

“Be careful.”

Then he was turning towards me in swimmy slow motion from the edge, his mouth opening, his eyes widening in amazement and wild surmise.

“Choe ?”

“Fucking hell, Mick! Look at it!”

He stopped, coughed, choked, clamped his hand over his mouth. With a violent, despairing overarm motion he hurled the cardboard boxes into the water–they turned over and over in the air, yellow tape flickering–and stumbled towards me. He clutched wildly at my upper arms.

“Mick!”

I pushed him away.

“It wasn’t like this before,” he said. “It was nothing like this!”

I said: “I’m not coming down here again.”

He grinned.

“Oh yes you are, Mick,” he said. “Go on. You know you are. Eh ?”

“I’m not.”

“You know you want to.”

“I don’t.”

“I can’t do it on my own,” he wheedled.

“Bollocks, Choe.”

We made six trips between us, cutting a furrow in that soft steep unpleasant earth between the rhododendron roots: and an hour later we stood on the edge of the pool to toss the final box on to the great stinking tangled raft of stuff in the centre. We were filthy and exhausted. It was like standing on the shore of a completely unknown future.

“The water’s warm,” Choe whispered.

A faint, milky steam lay above it.

“Let’s go,” I said.

“Wait!” he ordered. “Look at this.”

Peeling a length of yellow biohazard tape off the box, he offered it to me. It was two inches wide and printed with bold black capitals.

BURN WITHOUT OPENING.

“Jesus, Choe.”

I hurled the box away from me as far as I could and blundered off across the quarry, straight up a short steep slope of half-stabilised spoil and into the stripped frame of a 1979 Vauxhaull Chevette, which had once been pale blue. I hung on to it helplessly, panting and groaning and peeling off flakes of rusty paint like dry skin, repeating, “Why would anyone want to do this ? Why would anyone want to do this ?” until I felt calmer. When I was able to look back, I saw Choe on his knees, his spine curved like a foetus’s, throwing up into the pool.

“Choe!”

“Fuck off back to the van! I’ll catch you up!”

I had the engine going by the time he reappeared. He stood swaying and retching into his hand as I turned the van round to face downhill. He opened the passenger door and then stood there gazing in at me like a drunk, unable to summon up enough strength to get into his seat.

“I’ll need directions,” I said. And when he didn’t answer: “Choe, I’m just going to find the motorway, OK ?”

The van lurched forward, Choe’s door swung open. He didn’t say anything or do anything. He just sat looking tiredly ahead. He sat that way for thirty miles, then suddenly straightened up and looked around.

“Christ,” he said. “Where’s this ?”

“It’s the M6, no thanks to you. How do you feel ?”

“Fucking desperate.”

“You should have stayed out of that water.”

“It wasn’t the water.”

“What was it then ?”

“Stop at the next services. I’ve got to drink something.”

“If it wasn’t the water, Choe, what was it ?”

He stared out of the side window.

“I had a look in one of them boxes.”

“Christ, you moron.”

It was raining again. From Chorley on south, both inner lanes had been jammed with vast ARC carriers hauling high-grade road materials from the great northern limestone quarries down to bypass projects in Sale or Oldham, daubed to their cab windows with white mud, shifting in and out of view in a groaning aerosol of water and red light. I moved into the outside lane to overtake; moved back. Lights flashed behind me out of chaos; flashed again.

Choe ducked his head and grinned suddenly.

“Aren’t you going to ask me what was in it ?”

This extract is from Signs of Life, Gollancz 1997.

this is not an edgeland

hoban, solnit, meadows

DGMFS offers Very different approaches to solo accoustic guitar. Nina Allan mourns Russell Hoban. The usual thirteen year old boy is skateboarding in the middle of the street. He gives up after a while, perhaps bored with going “Shhhhhh-tok-CLACK” over & over again, & trucks off towards the river. Reading: A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit. Still reeling from: the final episode of This is England 88. & remember: “There’s still time to engrave an iPad for Christmas”. So get your chisel out now.

the constant imago

This Christmas, why not give Viriconium, city of sex, syphillis & consubstantiation ? “When he first fell in love with Vera Ghillera, my uncle had the walls of his room painted a heavy sealing-wax red; at the window there were thick velvet curtains the same colour, pulled shut. Pictures of the ballerina were everywhere–on the walls, the tables, the mantelpiece–posing in costumes she had worn for La chatte, The fire last Wednesday at Lowth, and The little hump-backed horse. The woman herself, or her effigy made in a kind of yellow wax, lay on a catafalque in the centre of the room, her strange, compact dancer’s body naked, the legs parted in invitation, the arms raised imploringly, her head replaced by the stripped and polished brown skull of a horse.”

Now in audiobook.

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