the m john harrison blog

in search of lost anxieties

I misplaced my current notebook about a month ago. I’m puzzled as to where or how; but even more puzzled that I haven’t begun another one. There are ten or a dozen waiting in a cupboard upstairs–covers ranging from cloth-on-stiff-board bought years ago in Colombo, to the inevitable black squared-paper Moleskine still in its shrinkwrap–but I can’t seem to choose between them. I quarter the house instead, trying to convince myself there’s somewhere I haven’t yet looked. I’m vaguely annoyed I can’t find it, but mainly for the puerile reason that it was “almost full”. At the same time, I can’t really get agitated. That seems like a loss in itself. I wonder where this latest novel is leading me: if you realise that you haven’t seen me for a couple of months, arrest it.

characters (5)

This character never has much more than an unconscious relationship with events. His awareness always skims them, or goes round them, or manages to find a way of dismissing them as shallow and insubstantial even as they’re happening. If the things that happen to him are taken in at all–actually engaged with or reacted to–it must be the unconscious which does that work, because his consciousness always seems to be off somewhere else. It’s never really connected up. Things’ effects on him have thus to be welcomed later, in symbols. Sometimes the return of the repressed will be all he has to work with to understand what has actually taken place.

where you really were

Insiders know everything about the thing they’re inside and deny everything that doesn’t suit them about what’s outside it. Contemporary insiderism is stickily mixed up with, and still owes its metaphysical base to, postmodernism: pressured, a contemporary insider is not only able to deny there is an outside, but also that there can ever be an outside. Knowing everything about the thing you’re in brings considerable status, although that’s hard to maintain when the bubble pops and you find out where you really were. The last thing you want to be then is an insider. Two generations have shown themselves this again and again but they won’t grow up and learn it.

may

Friday approaches and recedes but it’s never where you are. Two buzzards drift out over the valley, wings as flat as planks. Warm air, sunshine, rowan blossom like a confectioner’s shop; next door’s dogs howl. Further off, the junkman’s wonky bugle call. You live forever suspended in this complex medium until someone walks past saying, “I don’t think I’m anything like as well as I feel.”

DSCF3970

Middle class left begins its predictable trudge rightwards under the tattered banner, “After all, it can’t be so bad.” Also, “Let’s get a sense of proportion about this.” Etc etc.

the truth about history

Judging by the present, all our interpretations of deep-historical human behaviour are over-dignified. Instead of, “This item was probably part of a religious ceremony,” for instance, we should always prefer: “They used this as part of some stupid fad.” Or: “It was that generation’s version of the Yo Yo.” Archeology by kitsch: foundational myth as pulp: the Mysteries as am-dram. Melinda dresses like a mermaid and sits on a rock staring out to sea. In the arena, Ronnie is pretending he can jump bull. Bull-jumping used to be a dangerous sport, but with today’s techniques and equipment, anyone can have fun at it. Later, they’ll go up to the limestone caves and watch the dogging. Then Melinda rests her head on Ronnie’s shoulder in the warm dark and you can hear her say: “It was a lovely holiday but let’s do something else next year. Everyone’s going to Hittite Anatolia these days.” Fantasy that rips off history should always take account of this.

well used to falling down

Soon after we moved into the Dulwich house, we were called over to number 31 at one in the morning to help pick Lord Arquiss up.

His wife ran about in the empty street for a while, trying to attract our attention. A light, dry snow was dusting the road, wreathing and twisting along like dust round each quick little step. “Look at this,” said Elaine, who knew a performance when she saw one. “Not dancing but waving.” She waved back until the ballerina gave up and rang our bell.

“I wouldn’t ask,” the ballerina told us, “but he’s had a little bit much to drink, so we can’t really call the ambulance.”

Their front room was full of furniture too big for it, dimly lit by standard lamps with tasseled satin shades. Lord Arquiss lay waiting for us on the carpet at the base of a display cabinet, arranged on the glass shelves of which were hundreds of very small items in a kind of bright blue glass. He was looking up mischievously from the side of his eye. One of his slippers had fallen off. His legs, thick but somehow graceful, poked out of the bottom of the shortie dressing gown, their color somewhere between white and cream. His skin was very smooth. He had a faint, distinct smell — not unpleasant — which reminded me of babies. We got him up off the floor and back into his chair with difficulty. He was still a heavy man, even in a dressing gown and with naked, biscuit-colored balls.

He looked unrepentant; the ballerina looked relieved. “You must have a drink,” they urged; filled two glasses with Famous Grouse; and spent an hour telling us anecdotes of people called Tippy or Ticky — people who were Malcolm Sargent’s mistress in some old days even the participants barely now recall — people who had been well used to falling down and being picked up again.

from “Black Houses”, in Things That Never Happen, 2002.

sixty foot stack

As an apprentice, Stox had ignored the ladders one day and climbed instead the steel reinforcing bands of a l50-foot incinerator chimney on a waste tip near Birmingham. “It was quicker,” he claimed; but really he had done it out of mischief, and a desire to stir up his elders. The other jacks, he said, had been “well surprised”; but generally they would admit to no interest in rock climbing, and seemed unimpressed by his photographs of routes like London Wall and Coventry Street.

Stox phoned me at seven in the morning on Christmas Eve and asked me if I’d like to see what jacking was all about. I’d known him for a fortnight. I was so flattered and surprised I could only answer “Yes.”

If this seemed brusque he didn’t say so.

“I’ll pick you up in half an hour.”

He turned up ten minutes later, in a bruised Transit van belonging to his firm. Inside, it smelled of oil, Swarfega and old polypropylene rope. Stox drove impatiently. He was unforgiving of other drivers. But compared to Normal, whose wild lunges, sudden U-turns and lapses of concentration or memory were legend, he seemed quite safe.

“Ever watch stock car racing ? Well exciting!”

Stox’s contract was at a steelworks near Rotherham. Another team had been in the day before to prepare it for him. His brief was to do a Sonartest and make recommendations. I sat in the Transit for half an hour, reading a three-day-old copy of the Sun, while he went from Portacabin to Portacabin looking for the site engineer, a thin Sheffield man who took him by the arm, pointed silently at a smallish stack made of riveted steel cylinders, brick-lined, supported at the base by four vanes so that it looked like an abandoned rocket from some old-fashioned war, and promised, “You’ll do nowt wi’ that.”

It was crawling with rust even at ground level. We found five sixteen-foot wooden ladders in situ, tied on at intervals with steel cable. There was a pulley-block in place.

“Are your ropes always this frayed ?” I asked.

Stox smiled distantly, and in the faint but authoritative tones of Harry Dean Stanton in Repo Man answered: “Steeplejack always seeks out intense situations. It’s part of his code.”

“Piss off, Stox.”

About sixty feet above the ground was a batten-stage, eight planks and a few bits of scaffolding fixed to the stack with cleats, through which it was easy enough to see the ground. It was bitterly cold up there. In winter, climbers try to pick a sheltered crag: here, with three-hundred and sixty degrees of air around us, there was nothing between us and the wind. “I couldn’t work up here,” I said, looking out over British Steel. The skin at the back of my neck crawled. “Not for money. What do you want me to do?”

“You can admire the view.”

Parts of the works were being demolished prior to privatisation. For as far as I could see, cutting torches fizzed and flared and sent up showers of sparks from among the buckled girders. Heaps of waste smouldered in the mud between the huge corrugated sheds, giving off an acrid, low-lying smoke through which I could make out gantries crawling with oxygen pipes; muddy yards where the Mercedes, Volvo and Magirus Deutz trucks were parked in rows; the venous curves of a disused railway line–a bright, almost luminous green moss grew between its dull rails. As we walked past the shed now directly below us, I had seen what I thought were huge steel wheels piled on top of one another. They were already beginning to rust. This reminded me of how, at the turn of the Eighteenth Century, stone from France became cheaper than Hathersage grit. The grindstone industry collapsed, and work stopped in a day. Half-finished millstones are still scattered around at the base of the Peak District edges, for tourists to eat their lunch off.

After a moment or two, a man strolled into view through the smoke, pushed his goggles up on to his forehead, and pissed against the side of a huge tank of brownish liquid.

“Very nice,” said Stox.

He held the Sonartest against his ear and shook it.

“This thing’s a bit Mickey Mouse today. You’re supposed to be able to calibrate it against the samples. Still, it’ll have to do.”

There was about twenty feet of the stack left above us. Stox smeared some vaseline over the Sonartest pick-up and set off from the batten-stage, ignoring the ladders in a display of pure technical cheek, climbing on bolt-heads, rivets, things I couldn’t see, moving up and down with an intent grace while he passed the pick-up over the surface like a doctor’s stethoscope and called down the thicknesses– “2.98…3.77…There’s supposed to be four millimetres even, up here…2.01! Site engineer’s not daft….3.12….l.80!….” The pick-up left little green patches of Vaseline wherever it went. Brittle flakes showered down on me as Stox scraped the rust away to get a better contact. “Wait a minute,” he told himself, “if you–” He swung out lazily and delicately in that characteristic posture of a climber assessing the next few feet, legs straight, heels down, head tilted up intelligently. “Got it. 2.88.” By the time he’d finished we were both freezing.

“Time for some nosh,” said Stox.

As I was about to leave the batten-stage he stood in my way and stared at me intently. “I land the soft jobs,” he said, “the jobs like this, because I got a CSE. Do you see ?”

From Climbers, 1989.

stickies

(1) Gornal, Upper & Lower; also Gornalwood, an area of Dudley.

(2) Two crows chase a young hawk out of their airspace. The hawk peels off & flaps lazily away towards Wenlock thinking: why can’t these crows understand they’re yesterday’s bird? What is it they don’t get about the inevitability of change?

(3) David Copperfield always seems to have too many pasts. His present is an ongoing whirl of pasts. In the end he’s had so many contexts that we see him as quite modern.

(4) “As if it came from some other kind of enterprise.”

(5) When you’re reviewing my next book, you will make sure to ignore everything it’s doing then say it isn’t doing anything at all, won’t you? I should become anxious if you credited me with any kind of intent or consciously focused intelligence.

(6) Parents who seem to need their children as witnesses to (in increasing order of obscuredness) the parental life, the parental struggle, the parental myth or adventure, the primal scene.

(7) Love for Lydia isn’t about love between individual human beings, but about the love between classes. It’s about how that love–along with all its ties and boundaries, carefully binding attractions and even more carefully binding repulsions–was lost between the 1920s and the early 1950s in the UK. (& see this from Bevan, quoted today on Twitter: “How can wealth persuade poverty to use its political freedom to keep wealth in power? Here lies whole art of Conservative politics.”)

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