the m john harrison blog

Tag: viriconium

the first viriconium story

A reader asks, “Mike, which was the first Viriconium story, was it The Pastel City, NEL 1971, or was it “The Lamia & Lord Cromis”, published in New Worlds Quarterly the same year?” Readers, it was neither! The first Viriconium story was “Lamia Mutable” which, though it did not appear until 1972, in the Harlan Ellison anthology Again, Dangerous Visions, was actually written while living off potatoes & eggs & listening to Jeff Beck’s “Beck’s Bolero” in an attic room off the Holloway Road in February 1966. Readers, it was not simply my first Viriconium story: it was the second story I ever wrote! “Lamia Mutable” no longer exists as a feature of the Viriconium canon because, in the early 1980s, while attempting to revise it for publication in Viriconium Nights, I accidentally turned it into “The Dancer from the Dance”, which I so vastly preferred that when I finished it I paced around the room whispering, “Jesus, shit, fuck,” until I had to go out for a long run on the moor above Holmfirth to calm down & get my head out of that space. So that is the story of that.

You can’t read “Lamia Mutable” without buying a copy of Again, Dangerous Visions: but you can read “The Dancer from the Dance” for free here, or you can buy the whole Viriconium bundle here or here.

the bells, the bells

One of the books that came out of storage was Geoffrey Grigson’s idiosyncratic 1958 classic, The Englishman’s Flora. I bought it in a Paladin reprint in 1975 and thereafter used it less as a manual than as a source for Viriconium place names, groups of words which I would gleefully modify out of recognition within days. Grigson describes Campanula trachelium, Throatwort or the Nettle-leaved Bellflower, as “A tall plant secreting a yellow latex–the double signature of its value against a severe sore throat and tonsilitus, and in Germany, therefore, Halskraut.” That “double signature” is one of Grigson’s values to the user. Another is his obsessive collection of common names: C trachelium has only two, BLUE FOXGLOVE (in Shropshire) and COVENTRY BELLS. I remember Coventry Bells from my childhood in Warwickshire, but as a speech item rather than a plant, a pattern of words the faint resonance of which you might catch in later life from an HE Bates story. Gerard, Grigson notes, knew them from “the lowe woods and hedgerows of Kent about Canterburie” and didn’t think much of this name; he believed C trachelium should be called the Canterbury Bell, “a name which rose from the likeness of the flower bells to the St Thomas’s Bells, badges made of latten, bought by pilgrims to the Canterbury shrine of Thomas a Beckett.” Latten is any metal hammered into thin sheets, but usually some form of brass. Another word from my deep past, during which I gained an O level in metalwork. I was so cack-handed the teacher couldn’t believe I’d passed. “You must have done it on the theory,” he told me, scratching his head puzzledly in a corridor outside the workshops. It’s true that at thirteen years old I had been shunted into his classes from the woodwork course, on the grounds that it would take me longer to ruin a piece of metal than a piece of wood.

last transmit, halls of vira co

… saying, once those outsiders get in your tortured halls … I’m saying we didn’t have command of the vast fictions of the day … The city wasn’t, in the end, where those of us who lived there thought it was. We had already lost it in all senses of that word … All we knew of this place was the news … preferring the past’s acknowledgment of humanity, we remained uninterested by the watertightness of the plot … the halls are aware that–in the end–they can never know what, exactly, the plot was. It’s only silence after that. Back at the beginning there’s the tapping sound, like metal on stone … then the call signs, several of them, very amplified and confused … cries in the halls … a cruel few words and then, “We no longer know which way to face.” The halls are still aware … What if nothing “fell”? Nothing was lost but existed just alongside everything else, fifty years later in the rubble by a farm at the flat end of Shropshire … who could write this … everyone has a different story to sell … call signatures in rooks, fresh plough, old silence: “We don’t know what to do. Everything is the alongside of something else.”

post industrial zones

Dubious & formalised, as in Bilbao’s ex-docks or Sheffield reinvented as an apres-steel boutique: from industry to heritage industry. Wreckage needs to be real. It needs to be free. The central, inevitable & useful thing about a bent & rusty girder sticking up out of an overgrown cooling pond is that it’s a bent & rusty girder sticking up out of an overgrown cooling pond. Anything else is so pathetic: cleaned up, saved from itself (separated from the entropic processes it was always part of) & fit for a place on the mantelpiece in a nice front room. That teaches us something about the sublime in general: ie, really, it’s the Black Spot, the beginning of the end. So try & avoid capturing, recapturing or–especially– “celebrating” it. The urge to convey the authentic glee & terror of the post industrial wasteland is the beginning of the processes of romanticisation, postmodernisation & domestication. From the raw horror of a working blast furnace, through the uncanny of that much rust, to the kitsch. We need to live in the ruins; forget them; then live through them all over again, as whatever the landscape makes of them. Anything else is the media souvenir.

perhaps if I could see you

I can recover nothing. The city is already an endlessly fragmenting dream, endlessly reconstructing itself. The lime cliff of Minnet Saba crumbles into the side-streets of tall pastel-coloured apartments around Chenaniaguine. The waters of the Aqualate Pond lap about the base of Cold Walls, while at the same time–or at least in a continuous instant–the Entreflex, that beautifully-drawn but meaningless white symbol, stands in the distance above the city asking a question in a language we are forgetting even as we look. Churches of all denominations form themselves suddenly out of the fountains by an open air cafe. Old machines are discovered trembling with attention & anxiety in a toy wood between major avenues. As for you & me, we were bitten by insects somewhere between Uranium Street & the Horse Museum; you bought a yellow notebook which you never wrote in. For years I’ve kept these fragments floating around one another–it’s such an effort–attracted into patterns less by the order in which they occurred or by any “story” I can make about them than by gravity or animal magnetism. But I have no memory at all of the experience as it fell out. Perhaps if I could see you, I’d remember more.


Though on a good night you could still hear the breathy whisper of ten thousand voices wash across the roofs of Montrouge like a kind of invisible firework, the arena by then was really little more than a great big outdoor circus, & all the old burnings and quarterings had given place to history pageants, drumming, amateur choirs, acrobatics, trapeze acts &c. The New Men liked exotic animals. They did not seem to execute their political opponents–or each other–in public, though some of the aerial acts looked like murder. Every night there was a big, stupid lizard or a megatherium brought in to blink harmlessly & even a bit sadly up at the crowd until they had convinced themselves of its rapacity. & there were more fireworks than ever: to a blast of maroons full of magnesium & a broad falling curtain of cerium rain, the clowns would erupt bounding & cartwheeling into the circular sandy space–jumping up, falling down, building unsteady pyramids, standing nine or ten on each other’s shoulders, active & erratic as grasshoppers in the sun, while the massed bands played the popular music of a decade or two ago. They fought, with rubber knives and whitewash. They wore huge shoes. Everyone loved them. [From "The Dancer from the Dance", 1983.]

on the street in Viriconium

Balker came down from the north and lived on the street.

He was young for his age. He started in the station where the train emptied him out, then moved into a doorway near a bus stop. It was all right for a while. Then he met Verdigris and they went up to the High City together. Verdigris wasn’t that much older than Balker. They were about the same height, but Verdigris knew more. He came from somewhere in the city, he had always lived in Viriconium. He had bright red hair, an alcohol tan and a personalised way of walking. He could get a laugh out of anything. For a while Balker and Veridigris did well out of the tourists in the High City. But Verdigris’ lifestyle-choices moved him along quickly and he started to limp up and down the Terrace of the Fallen Leaves saying, “’I’m in bits, me!’” and showing people the big sore on his neck.

“Hey, look mate, I’m in bits!”

After Verdigris died, Balker stayed away from the other street people. They had a language all their own he never learned to speak, but he knew the same thing was happening to them as to him.

He knew the same thing was happening to everyone.

There were new rules in. New rules had come in, and everyone in Viriconium was in the same position. If you couldn’t look after yourself there was a new way to pay.

Sleeping on the street is hard, all the reasons for that are obvious. It’s never quiet. The police move you about, the mutual associations won’t leave you alone: everyone thinks the boroughs belong to them. You’re hungry, you’ve got a cough, there’s other stuff, it’s an endless list. No one sleeps well in a doorway. You get fragments of sleep, you get the little enticing flakes of it that fall off the big warm central mass. Wake up, and everything seems to have fallen sideways. You guess it’s four in the morning in November, somewhere at the foot of the Ghabelline Stair; but you could be wrong. Are you awake ? Are you asleep ? Rain swirls in the doorway. You’ve got a bit of fever and you can’t quite remember who you are. It’s your own fault of course. You wake up and he’s there in front of you, with his nice overcoat, or sometimes a nice leather jacket, to protect him from the weather. You never really hear his name, though he tells you more than once. He seems to know yours from the beginning.

“Your health’s going,” he says. “You want to start now, before it goes too far.”

So he leaned into Balker’s doorway–maybe it was the night, maybe it wasn’t–and took Balker’s chin in his hand. He turned Balker’s face one way then the other. He was gentle, he even looked a bit puzzled, as if he was wondering why anyone would choose to live that way, what bad choices they must have made made to find themselves in a doorway at the foot of the Ghabelline Stair.

“You want to start now,” he repeated.

So Balker started. They took him to the place in the maze of streets below Mynned Saba. You’d get a meal afterwards, they said. You could expect your head to swim a bit, but come on: somebody in Balker’s condition was going to notice that ? In the end it was easy and it was a bit of money in your hand. It was a way of being responsible for yourself. It could be a beginning, they told him; or you could just leave it at that. But what Balker liked most was the warmth and the calm of the place. It was worth it just to lie down and not think about what to do next. Balker looked around and fell asleep. That was how it started for him, really. That was how his whole life started.


The second part of John Coulhart’s look at the packaging of Viriconium is now up at {feuilleton}. Go there & enjoy John’s gorgeous intelligent choices, then come back here & say what you like best. I could eat them all with a mug of tea, but I’m telling you now that for me it has to be Detail from the Red Flow, by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Along with the simple design qualities of the faux-Penguin cover, it seems to have everything I asked for yesterday. I spent much of my time until the late 80s in rage & misery at how deliberately Viriconium seemed to be mispackaged, as if the text were being punished for going against the grain. John’s articles have reminded me how unpleasant that felt (I think the low point was the Timescape package, including the retitle, for In Viriconium) but also to what degree, given the improved covers of recent years, I’ve become reconciled to all of it. He also shows what possibilities might open up as f/sf covering policies broaden.

in viriconium

At {feuilleton} John Coulthart considers forty years of attempts to cover & market Viriconium, most of which failed because the publishers couldn’t or wouldn’t face the actual content of the books. To celebrate, here’s a shot of the barrel proof stock–

    The houses up here, warm and cheerful as they are in summer, become in the first week of September cold and damp. Ordinary vigorous houseflies, which have crawled all August over the unripe lupine pods beneath the window, pour in and cluster on any warm surface, but especially on the floor near the electric fire, and the dusty grid at the back of the fridge; they cling to the side of the kettle as it cools. That year you couldn’t leave food out for a moment. When I sat down to read in the morning, flies ran over my outstretched legs.
    “I suppose you’ve got the same problem,” I said to Mr Ambrayses. “I poison them,” I said, “but they don’t seem to take much notice.” I held up the Vapona, with its picture of a huge fly. “Might as well try again.”
    Mr Ambrayses nodded. “Two explanations are commonly offered for this,” he said:
    “In the first we are asked to imagine certain sites in the world–a crack in the concrete in Chicago or New Delhi, a twist in the air in an empty suburb of Prague, a clotted milk bottle on a Bradford tip–from which all flies issue in a constant stream, a smoke exhaled from some fundamental level of things. This is what people are asking–though they do not usually know it–when they say exasperatedly, “Where are all these flies coming from ?” Such locations are like the holes in the side of a new house where insulation has been pumped in: something left over from the constructional phase of the world.
    “This is an adequate, even an appealing model of the process. But it is not modern; and I prefer the alternative, in which it is assumed that as Viriconium grinds past us, dragging its enormous bulk against the bulk of the world, the energy generated is expressed in the form of these insects, which are like the sparks shooting from between two flywheels that have momentarily brushed each other.” –A Young Man’s Journey.

More from John Coulthart on Viriconium tomorrow.

later the same day…

…he sat by his window and looked out over the waste lots, hoping to recognise something, or place himself on his night’s travels. But as usual what could be seen from the window bore no resemblance to what was endured on the ground.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 422 other followers