the m john harrison blog

Tag: politics

a smeared present

Includes some events from the immediate past. As you grow older the effect increases. When you were a child your smeared present was only a few minutes long; by the time you reach sixty it’s two or three years. A very smeared present can include anticipated events from the near future as if they have already happened.

a bad dream

I woke up from a dream about losing my identity & not being able to find anything that would confirm it. It wasn’t a dream about the problem & how to solve it. It wasn’t a dream about the horror of not having a financial identity. Loss of identity was not a condition that required explanation or a way of escape in either of those senses or in any other sense: it was just a condition. I was in the town of my birth. I hadn’t been there for decades. I was at the station, at a sort of advice counter. The man behind the counter was amused. It was as if he didn’t understand the extent of the problem. It was as if he couldn’t believe anyone could lose their identity. I was trying to appear cheerful about the situation. I had a tarpaulin travel bag containing a few clothes & other personal items. It was also full of bits of waste paper & receipts. Each time I went through this litter in the hope that a credit card or phone or other identifier would turn up, it seemed to be more useless. Who would help me? Though I couldn’t remember any addresses I knew I could physically make my way to one person’s house. But I had long ago fallen out with them.

get out for a walk

while you still can.

“National Parks are extensive tracts of country that are protected by law for future generations because of their natural beauty and for the opportunities they offer for open air recreation.” –YouGov
Stop the Tories using a false housing crisis to break the National Parks Act.

keep watching the walls

Beige Ops team: we fade into the background. Beige Ops are in the walls. They are in the paint on the walls. Beige Ops are so secret & so pivotal they are in the paint itself. They are in the grains of pigment, and how the grains of pigment arrange themselves. No one sees a Beige Op. No one ever knows if they were part of one. Ask yourself if you are a part of the paint on the walls. There’s no answer to that question. We are all in the most comprehensive Beige Op ever staged. The whole of the 1950s was a Beige Op, run out of a livingroom wall in Harrow. Beige Ops are a decision made by the visible spectrum. Unpredictable but inevitable. Beige Ops are galactic. They are nationwide. Keep watching the walls.

not the correct role model for the poor

Here’s some confused right wing vegetarian Gradgrindism. The poor are to suffer–otherwise, where’s the differential between them & us? If they learn to deal with austerity in a capable, good-humoured way, obviously we haven’t made them poor enough. The poor, it can’t be said too often, must be seen to be poor. They must know they’re poor, like proper poor people, & feel the stick. Above all, think of the chickens. This is, to say the least, confused. The “arguments” themselves resemble the efforts of a dishevelled and ageing fowl to avoid an inevitable fate–lots of thrashing, not much plan; underneath them you can hear thirty years of not very intelligent ladies-who-lunch, ill-equipped to defend their own sense of entitlement, fitfully mashing up astrology with Ayn Rand in a nice little place in Primrose Hill. Beyond parody, but also very revealing: Jack Monroe’s lively, determined & above all practical response to adversity seems to have enraged the right more than any amount of parliamentary politics. She has stolen one of their most traditional tunes. She is clearly not what they bargained for. Not the correct role model at all.

Update: shortly after blogging a response to this surreal rubbish, Jack Monroe received a demand for £936, ostensibly from Getty Images, for her use of screen-captured images from the DM piece.

light & warmth

There isn’t one of these pictures that doesn’t sum it all up perfectly. But I especially like the blood-snow in the first one, symbolising the end of the organic regime in the anthropocene–a paradoxical enough concept to handle in a book, let alone a window display. Happy Gifting to all teletubbies! Giant headphones! Your world mirrored back at you! The Harrods windows look as if they’ve been scripted by Ayn Rand: the 1% shows us its Christmas, the light falls on our upturned faces. Welcome back to 1856. Unless you’re actually in the 1% or exist as a corporate entity (see death of the organic in the anthropocene, above), in which case this is your politics, you should understand that your political affiliations don’t matter here: these displays celebrate a cross-political war on everyone. You may support the Randistas & their noncommissioned officers in government: but they don’t support you.

the usual impostures

For some reason this seems apt–

The behaviouristic universe, controlled from outside the text. The meaningless anxiety generated by a plot trope carefully isolated from any actual plot. The meaningless preparation for action. The preparation for meaningless action. The Proppian magic object, its discovery the next item on a to-do list checked from outside the text. The freedom motif & its meaninglessly glib reversal. All of it makes a Skinner box look like To the Lighthouse. The actant has nice muscles but you feel only compassion. Not because she’s haggard from the effort of keeping in shape; not because she’s trapped in a scenario one millimetre deep; not because she’s encumbered by those risible poses of faux-aggression & off-the-shelf feistiness; not because her humanity has been reduced to an algorithm, a schematic whose tragedy is to make Lara Croft seem complex: but because she exists only as cultural property at the beck & call of the rights holder & the player. She can escape the prison but not the game.

the room

This is one of the short stories I read at Lancaster LitFest. Originally it was called “Cocking A Snook”, & it was commissioned and performed by Barbara Campbell as part of her massive “1001 Nights Cast” project–

I lived the whole of that year in a long house with a single corridor running past every room.

While the corridor had no windows, the rooms looked out on to a harbour lively with heat and warships. Some rooms were dilapidated, with holes in the floors, collapsed ceilings, home to colonies of lizards and palm squirrels. Others were occupied by people like me who had never stayed in one place long enough to learn to look after themselves. Yet others were really good rooms, cool, intact, full of contemporary sound equipment, interesting steamed plywood furniture and themes from Western lifestyle magazines. Tired of my original quarters, I was looking for somewhere quiet and without distractions. I had work that needed to be done: even more, perhaps, it needed to be organised.

It was impossible to calculate how many rooms there were in the long house. This information was known only to the figures of authority who often squatted in a line along one side of the corridor eating fish curry with rice. I soon found an unoccupied room, characterised by a large table full of neglected plants in pots and some veinous diagrams at different heights on the walls. Someone had built a shelter out of flattened cardboard boxes in one corner. The floor was littered with dirty flex, yellow cardboard boxes of nails, bags of chemicals that had burst in the heat, and the plastic toys you buy for hamsters. There was some sense that this was the detritus of not one but several previous attempts to inhabit the room.

I had to pick up that mess before I could start. But this is how puzzling the whole experience became: as I got rid of things, new things would appear. Someone’s laundry, rammed into three or four binbags. Personal objects, such as: a broken Breitling chronometer, a framed photograph of the breakfast room of the Colonial Hotel. Confectionary. I would pack this stuff into other binbags and throw them into the corridor, then go back along the corridor for some things of my own. Each time I returned, there was more stuff. It was always different.

At lunchtime I hadn’t done any work. I hadn’t even taken my iPad out of its slipcase, that’s how bad things were. I ate lunch with an old friend, who was anxious to be certain nothing of hers was among the belongings I had moved out of my original room. She was leaving later that day by air.

“These people,” she said, “don’t want help. They’re cocking a snook at everything we think worthwhile.”

“’Cocking a snook’,” I repeated. “You don’t often hear that.”

“It was what my father used to to say.”

We smiled at one another.

Then she took my wrist in one of her hands in a way she had and said, “I want to be sure you’ll be all right.”

I would be fine I said, I would be all right. But when I got back from lunch I surprised another man in the room. He was a local, younger than me, a bit scruffy, a bit ordinary. He wore cheap, ordinary clothes and even his stubble was worn-looking, as if he worked hard at some ordinary job. He had a radio playing the local music. He was stuffing my things into carrier bags and stacking them in the corridor. He thought the room was his.

“It has always been mine,” he said. “It was always my room from when I came here.”

At first, I felt aggrieved. My work needed to be done. It needed, more than anything else, organising. Yet I was quickly convinced by the sincerity of this man’s belief that it had been his room before I tried to occupy it. It had never been “spare”, or mine to organise. I went round picking up my remaining things, while he sat on the windowsill and watched me with a calm expression. Behind him the warships flickered in the heat haze in the harbour.

“If you had nowhere else to go,” he said, “you could use this room. But you would have to share it with me.”

“No, no,” I said.

I was anxious to explain. I could easily go somewhere else, I was just looking for somewhere quiet to work. I was a writer. I was writing about the big changes that were going to happen here.

“They are bigger changes than you think,” he said.

I left him there, his head turned so that he could look out of the window while the radio filled the air with music, and went back down the long corridor, peeping into all the really good rooms, full of expensive old furniture or looking like the lobbies of comfortable hotels, thinking that I would never have a room like that, and rather dreading going back to the quarters I had come from, which would be unwelcoming, disordered, full of flies.

But when I got there I found that the figures of authority had inspected it while I was away. It was now the gateway to a rolling endless landscape of tall grass, under a lighting effect from a the cover of a commercial fantasy novel. In the foreground, lying on the grass in front of a bench, was something which looked partly like a woman and partly like an oriental cat a kind of ivory white colour, which though it first seemed immobile, was slowly writhing and moving, struggling not to become one thing or the other but to remain both things at the same time. Something else was happening, too, maybe some people grouped in the foreground, I can’t remember. I was struck by the potential of this landscape, rolling away under its alien light. I heard a voice say, “You need never leave here.” A beautiful tranquility came over me, along with a sense of my own possibilities.

After a moment or two, the young man whose room I had tried to occupy came up behind me. He touched my shoulder.

“This room also belongs to me,” he said.


Seventeen jackdaws were conducting a meeting in their invisible boardroom between the pub chimneys. I felt a bit thin on the ground that day so I took the green slot up through the woods. My hearing was back in my left ear. Welcome home baby, I said, but I wondered if my affair was over with the binaural world & we were only going through the motions. The pylons made a sound like a bottling plant in the distance. There were church bells. Half-tuned motors snarled up from the garage in the valley like dogs behind a security fence. Sounds of an English village. Later, rain slopped off the front gutters of the closing shops in the twilight. Dark before seven, TVs on before eight; front rooms full of flickering light. The ads don’t even seem to be selling anything anymore, just updating, reprocessing their brand in the light of current consumer perceptions, fine tuning the engines of consumption. It’s less important that you buy our stuff than you buy any stuff. Soon be winter in a strange house.

the dead never answer you back

V worked in a morgue. It was grim, she admitted, “But then again I saw my first corpse when I was fourteen and a half.”

The night we met she was drinking heavily and had become obsessed with something she had read about, a subspecies of people born looking like goats–hairy faces, amber eyes, a muzzle. They were born male, V said, though women carried the gene.

I had my notebook out within five minutes of meeting her. I wanted to know the secrets of the morgue but all she would say about that was, “The dead never answer you back.” She was more interested in the goats. “They can live normally, feed and clothe themselves. Isolated in villages of their own, they survive–perhaps stronger, certainly more intelligent than ordinary people.”

“Why aren’t there more of them ?” I asked. “Why haven’t I ever seen one?”

A few days later I had an email from her. She had got my address from a mutual friend. “You seem like a decent man,” she said, “so I’m sending you this. Get in touch if you’re interested.”

It was a quote from Maxim Gorky, which went: “In the spring of this year, during the first warm days, weird, fantastic people crawled out on the streets of Petrograd. Where and how had they lived hitherto ? Doubtless in some slum, in old, solitary, crumbling houses, hidden away from life, insulted and rejected by the world. One dominant thought cropped up in my mind every time I saw them: they have forgotten something and are trying to recall it, silently crawling about the town in search of it.

“They were dressed in worn-out, tattered clothes, they were dirty and evidently very hungry, but they did not look like beggars and did not ask for alms. Very silently, very carefully they walked along, watching the ordinary passers-by with suspicion and curiosity. As they stopped before the shop-windows, they examined the things exhibited in them with the eyes of folk who are trying to discover–or remember–what use one made of all those things.”

I didn’t know what to make of that. She sent me a couple more things but despite feeling that she was a rich vein of subject matter I didn’t answer.


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