the m john harrison blog

two for one

1. the magus zoroaster

I bumped into myself on the street & just talked & talked.

The late life doppelganger is the worst. You aren’t being shown anything you haven’t already seen. You don’t learn anything you didn’t already know.

The truth about the doppelganger is that you were always what you were seeing. People avoid that for as long as they can, on the grounds of banality, & who can blame them. But a writer’s job is to rub their noses in it.

2. who is the 3rd who always walks beside you

Tarkovsky was such a successful prophet. Every colonisation, every gentrification, re-enacts itself across a generation or so, first as its own myth–a landscape of risk, death, unknown rules & nightmare struggle; then as a tourist destination. This is the contemporary meaning of the Zone. In Chernobyl and on Everest we see how every motive the Stalker rejected in his would-be female client at the beginning of the film is now the commodified norm of the edgeland.

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salt slow

A cohort of bright and lively Catholic schoolgirls, required to watch sex-education videos– “censored Health and Safety movies from the 1970s, heavy on abstracted metaphors and light on biology” –suddenly grow “slack and strange from too much inactivity” and spend their time boasting to each other about their physical flaws. These competitive lists of defects quickly yaw towards the macabre. “I dream in sheddings,” the narrator tells us; soon enough we begin to suspect that her skin problem might be something more than metaphor… Julia Armfield lays tender but surreal fantasies like nets over a deep comic savagery, structuring them like films from another country. My review of her debut collection Salt Slow in the Guardian; and of the astonishing short “The Great Awake” at Jonathan Gibbs’ A Personal Anthology (scroll down).

landscape

Elsewhere, stands of scrub had overgrown the old walls to make intimate sunken bays floored with turf. They looked like rooms in the intimacy of the western sun. You felt instantly calm. You felt instantly at home, until what you thought was a chalk bank, cut deeply by the footpath, revealed ends of brick. It was all going back to the earth. Landscape as a metaphor for the constructed had met & become tangled with the metaphor of the built environment, & they had collapsed into one another. It made you think about the sorts of things that architects said at the beginning of the last century, about the good effect of the right architecture on people’s lives. The sense that people would be cared for by the architects themselves, & architecture be a way of replacing the accidents of the vernacular, the disorderly provisions of the natural world. Then, as you walked further up the hillside, everything opened out again suddenly to wide re-entrants grass-glowing in the sunlight, opened out to the long ridges dotted with isolated hawthorns and patches of burnet rose. The wind opened everything out and moved it along.

(June 2008)

urban vertical

Orange overalls daubed with sealants hang from a loose cable at the back of the power-tool room. From there you go up in a lift like a ribbed steel coffin smelling faintly of disinfectant. Roof access: pull-down steel ladder, counterweighted trap door. The drop is set up from ring bolts placed at regular intervals along the flat roof, the load spread over two or three bolts with clove-hitches. These bolts were part of a suspension-system for window cleaning cradles, unused because it didn’t get the approval of the insurance companies. Lightning conductors: a flat copper strip runs all the way round the parapet; more conventional rods are placed at the corners. When a storm is approaching, these begin to vibrate palpably. Because the ropes run across the copper strip, this is a good time to get off the drop for a bit. An unimpeachable tranquillity overtakes you once you’re over the parapet of the building. Nothing can harm you now. The wind hits you like a wall, then dies away & there you are, hanging above the trees, cars, old men walking between the blocks, a bull terrier fighting with a broom, women pushing babies in prams, cars like toys–the whole estate laid out below you like the architect’s model it once was. The ropes trail away. Freedom. Freedom from everything. A man unloading something from a van glances up briefly in surprise. Trees which look like coral in the sun. You hang there relaxing after the tension of getting over the parapet. Balconies: kitchen chairs, mops, rubbish in black bags, crates of empty bottles. One of the balconies flooded with two inches of rainwater. As you go down, the wind picks up 90 feet of trail rope, blows it round the corner of the block, where it tangles round a satellite dish. The same gust knocks you ten feet to one side & off balance so that you have to hook one foot under a balcony rail at about the level of your chest to anchor & reorient yourself. You sit patiently twitching a loop of rope until it’s disentangled & you can drop again. Underwear dances suddenly above you over the balcony. A window opens. A hand appears, to throw out dust or crumbs. You can’t see who is attached to it. You look out over the man-made lake, a kind of Brutalist reservoir now terminally polluted by a sewer-burst. It used to support all sorts of activities, even windsurfing. Now four or five men set out across it very slowly in a small boat–huddled, cold-looking, perhaps collecting samples of the polluted water. The wind takes all the vigour out of them.

(long ago)

You’re writing a sentence and recognise that whatever lies behind it has tipped up everything ten degrees to the horizontal, with washed-out colours and strange old fashioned pictorial values of looking into a mirror, in which you see your own back only to realise it belongs to someone else. For any writer it is the best way to start the day. It will happen even in, say, a book review. This is a way of speaking, obviously: this substrate, this landscape or substance is both there and not there. You understand that in conversion to text, something will be lost. It will undergo some rationalisation. But try not to renege on it, because in the end it’s all you’ve got.

the library

For some years a sub-basement beneath the hotel’s parking facility was used to store texts generated by the guests. These, ranging from thin volumes of verse to literary horror novels the thousand pages of which might be read in any order, were discovered in predictable circumstances: an immaculately tidy room with fifty years of stored nail clippings & a mysteriously opened window; urgent written or recorded warnings against reading or even turning the pages of the manuscript; the death, wandering-off or unexplained evaporation of the writer in circumstances which suggested they too had been an item in a text. During the pre-war period, the Theory Cadre threw open this library three times a year, but though its contents drew visitors from most major universities, no scholarship emerged & in May 1946 the sub-basement, along with the passage that leads to it, was sealed.Elements of the Closed Architectonics Committee of the Theory Cadre visit Le Tourniquet, circa 1930.

From “The Theory Cadre”, You Should Come With Me Now

orpheus in the underland

There are so many good books around at the moment. Will Eaves’ Murmur, obviously, which won the Wellcome prize a few days ago, a triumph not just for the author but for Charles Boyle’s CBEditions, one of the smallest publishers in Britain. The Dollmaker by Nina Allen, reviewed here. Sandra Newman’s glitteringly imaginative time story, The Heavens. Coming soon: Homing, by Jon Day, a calm, artful meditation on home and returning, navigation and orientation, which, in addition, will leave you knowing everything you always wanted to know about the Columbidae; Will Wiles’s rebarbative Plume (also, in a sense, bird-oriented); Helen Mort’s Black Car Burning, also, in a sense, about home, as the place you structure out of the things you do; and Salt Slow by Julia Armfield, her debut collection.

Then there’s the Underland, which opened its maw this week.

Every time he writes, Robert Macfarlane performs several extraordinarily deft acts of focus, by which he interleaves layer upon layer of landscape and mindscape. At the same time he never fails to give you the sense that the book you are reading has self-assembled from its own imaginary, which is in turn composted and churned from the substance of the world and his relations with it. Even if he only thought about things, and wrote them down, Macfarlane would be a significant, persuasive writer—he has perfect control of the skill, or art, or quality of mind Brian Dillon described in Essaysim. But Macfarlane has been there too, and looked, and this is what he saw; and this is what he did; and this is what emerged from the experience. This is what it means to be a contemporary landscape writer. Macfarlane made the book, you understand, with its cunning millefeuille of themes and imagery, deep human history, cycles of politics, poetry and myth: but you also understand that it developed under its own impetus, out of the deep relations of the things of the world. Or, in the case of Underland, the things under the world: from its deep time geological underpinnings, up through layer after labyrinthine layer of cultural and economic connection, to the shallow scabrous subsurface litter of the things we know and are trying to forget—the things our species is trying to hide and hide from—the things we’re burying as we bury ourselves alive.

“While writing Underland,” he said in the Guardian recently, “I have come to think of claustrophobia as one of the distinctive experiences of the Anthropocene: a sense of time and space running out; of being in the grip of Earth forces triggered by human actions but exceeding human control…” Underland takes us inside that experience, and is a genuinely frightening catabasis as a result. But Macfarlane keeps singing to the end and gets us back into the light.

in real life, postscript

If you’re interested in the epistemology, phenomenology, and existentialist issues of adventure, and you like science fiction too, you couldn’t do better than read a novel called Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys. It is a much less woolly and more concise analysis of ”exploratory values” than either Roadside Picnic or Stalker, and preceded both. Aesthetically, I prefer the latter two, obviously (and I am aware of Budrys’ problematics, so please don’t @ me). But he makes his points—about exploration and the learning curve–in a more clinical manner than the Strugatsky Brothers or Tarkovsky, while artfully using the metaphor they rediscovered to do double duty: his set-up also allows him to examine the repetition-compulsions on which risk sports are founded. (Also worth a look in that context is the movie Flatliners, in which, as in Rogue Moon, killing yourself repeatedly becomes both the exploratory method and the basis for a game.)

in real life

Along with the imminent publication of Rob Macfarlane’s masterpiece Underland, this retweet by Andrew Male reminded me of something. I’ve always been fascinated by the praxis and professionalism of cavers. Especially cave divers. A friend of mine gave up climbing to do that activity for a while. He supplied me with some fine anecdotal material. In the late 1970s I had written part of a sci-fi/horror novel in which a team of contemporary cavers and climbers, prospecting the Irish karst for new routes in their separate disciplines, rediscovered the remains of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. Their subsequent exploration of the associated geology would have had all the predictable results and in addition allowed me to make a critique both of the Hodgson novel and Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls”. It was also my idea to catch the reader up with contemporary caving and climbing techniques and attitudes. (The “exploratory value” would be seen being absorbed into the new values of risk sport, for instance, a transition later touched on in Nova Swing and Empty Space.) I dropped the idea because it seemed too ordinary, too direct and too glib. All that’s left, apart from perhaps ten thousand words of yellowing draft, is the short story “The Ice Monkey”, which I cut out of it. “The Ice Monkey” started me off in a completely different direction and led to Climbers. I stopped trying to literalistically incorporate my real-life interests and experiences into fantasy fiction (see Tomb the Dwarf’s solo of the first pitch of Medusa, Ravensdale, or Alstath Fulthor’s trail-run up from Hadfield via Yellow Slacks up on to Bleaklow, across the Woodhead and then down by Tintwhistle Low Moor in A Storm of Wings) and instead began to let the two kinds of content and technique blur together, in search of what the result could tell me. You can see that immediately you look at the stuff. You can also see that I became happier and more comfortable with the way I was doing things. You can call these very self-aware metafictional explorations of the exploratory value and its inevitable structures “the Weird” if you like. I call it being the kind of writer I started to be in 1979.

anna’s adventures in norbiton

Next morning she truanted on Dr Alpert, changed trains at London Victoria and made her way down through the postal codes until, the other side of Balham, she thought she recognised the way the streets curled and dovetailed across the swell of a hill. “Orchid Nails”, read the signs outside the station: “Minty Pearls Dental Clinic”. Anna descended from the train and wandered thoughtfully along staring into the windows of empty houses. She had no plan. She favoured quiet residential avenues and a particular kind of four-bedroom mock-Tudor, with laurels and a slip of driveway to one side of its front garden. The shabbier a place looked, the more likely it was to hold her attention. By mid afternoon she thought she might be in Sydenham Hill. She had covered miles under the enamel light, trespassed on the hard standings of a dozen middle class homes. She was exhausted. Her ankles hurt. She was lost. It wasn’t the first time she had done this.

Sydenham Hill turned out, in point of fact, to be Norbiton, a place named after the suburb in an Edwardian novel. Anna sat down with a cup of tea in the station cafe and emptied her bag on to the table. It was full of the usual silt–ends of make-up, a single glove, an address book bloated with the names of people she never saw anymore, her phone with its flat battery. There were receipts folded into very small squares, foriegn coins and coins no longer in circulation. There was an old outboard computer drive: this, she took up.

It was perhaps two inches by three, with curved, organic-looking edges, its smooth dull surface interrupted at one end by a line of firewire ports–one of those objects which, new and exciting in its day, now looked as dated as a cigarette case. Michael had left it with her, along with some instructions, putting his warm hand over Anna’s–they were in a railway cafe just like this one–and urging her:

“You will remember, won’t you ?”

All she could remember now was being afraid. When you’re afraid of everything, especially each other, you have to walk away; consign each other to the world.

Anna had arrived in Norbiton between trains. She drank a second cup of tea and stared out with vague good will at the empty platform, where everything had a thick fresh coat of paint. After about twenty minutes an old man was helped into the cafe by some railway staff. He had outlived himself. His bald brown head seemed too big for his neck; his underlip, the colour of uncooked liver, drooped in exhausted surprise at finding himself still there. They sat him at Anna’s table, where he banged her feet and legs about with his stick, shoved the contents of her bag carelessly across the table towards her, and, as soon as he was settled, began eating salmon sandwiches directly from a paper bag. His hands were ropy with veins, the skin over them shiny and slack. He ate greedily but at the same time with a curious lack of interest, as if his body remembered food but he didn’t. As he ate he whispered to himself. After some minutes he put the bag down, leaned across the table and tapped Anna’s hand sharply.

“Ow,” said Anna.

“Nothing is real,” he said.

“I’m sorry ?”

“Nothing is real. Do you understand ? There are only contexts. And what do they context ?” He gave Anna an intent look; breathed heavily a few times through his mouth. “More contexts, of course!” Anna, who had no idea how to respond, stared angrily out of the window. After a moment he said, as if he hadn’t already spoken to her, “I have to get on the next train. I wonder if you would be kind enough to help me ?”

“I wouldn’t, no,” Anna said, collecting up her things.

It was almost dark when she arrived home. Marnie had left irritable messages on the answerphone. “Pick up, Anna. I’m really very cross with you. It’s not the first time you’ve let the doctor down like this.” Anna made herself an omelette and ate it in the kitchen standing up, while she rehearsed what she would say to Marnie. The last of the daylight was fading out of the sky. James the cat jumped up on to the kitchen top and begged. Absent-minded with guilt, Anna gave him more of the omelette than she had intended to.

–Empty Space, 2012