the m john harrison blog

another little taste

Later, pissing off the end of one of the abandoned barges upstream, invisible among the tall weeds and strengthless-looking bushes that grew on every square foot of its decaying deck, he thought he heard something behind him. There were two or three confused movements further along the hull, followed by a fluttering or rustling just outside his sightlines; then a quiet splash as if something had slipped furtively into the river. He waited for ripples but they didn’t show. He leaned out to look up and down the reach. Nothing: the surface of the river was compact and burnished all the way to Kew Bridge, where the piers split it into whorls and eddies which streamed off towards Barnes.

He zipped up and pushed his way back anxiously towards the land through the vegetation. In there, among recent shoots and withered induviae, everything felt dry and at the same time rotted to a wafer. Small cream moths floated up from among the faded lager cans and shredded plastic bags. A fibrous mulch was replacing the old deck; but you could still feel the decaying timbers flex beneath. Anything, he thought, could be living in all that warm, dense, airless, puzzling growth.

That lunchtime, for a change, he walked downstream to Strand-on-the-Green and ate a hamburger sitting outside a pub called The City Barge while middle-aged women in yoga pants by Liquido and Spiritual Gangster exercised their miniature dogs between him and the river. He felt as if he was sick of all that side of things. The tide had turned. The water was beginning to slacken and churn. The previous week’s bad weather had folded itself away into heat and humidity, but remained immanent somehow in the dull brassy glare that lay across the city. Everything was dusty again, but the sky could always open. The worst of July, the foretaste of August. Midstream, Oliver’s Island looked like a Victorian dreadnought abandoned in the quivering light, its slabby iron plates somehow turned to stone.

I would never have to fake my own death, he found himself thinking. I’ve all but vanished already. Part of him welcomed that. Another part, larger but so thinly distributed across his personality that it seemed invisible, panicked soundlessly on a twenty four hour schedule.

can’t say this often enough


-1From my contribution to An Unreliable Guide to London, Influx Press: “Mystical sunsets behind the troubled roofs of East Sheen, the overgrown gravestones of Barnes Common, the grim Edwardian silhouette of the Elm Guest House. A smell drifts down the river which can’t for a second be mistaken for that of the brewery. The tide is low, the water fast and turbulent between the piers of Barnes Bridge. Eddies thicken with the matted stuff left at high tide–bottle caps, tampon applicators, condoms in a matrix of sodden interwoven twigs rarely more than five or six inches long–it’s a substance in itself. The sexual health of a nation can always be judged by the state of its rivers.”

Available in July, with further serious misdirections by:

Yvvette Edwards, Will Wiles, Irenosen Okojie, Nikesh Shukla, Courttia Newland, Gary Budden, Koye Oyedeji, Leone Ross, Paul Ewen, Gareth E Rees, George F, Stephanie Victoire, Chloe Aridjis, Sunny Singh, Juliet Jacques, Noo Saro-Wiwa, Salena Godden, Tim Wells, Aki Schilz, Stephen Thompson, Eley Williams, Kit Caless & Tim Burrows.


Three days before delivery, the review should look like a roast chicken carcass on a plate. It’s stuck there with congealed fat, the carving knife and fork abandoned one each side. Everyone’s had a go at it, hot and cold. The knife has sliced. Fingers have plucked and tugged. It’s at the end of its run, this bird, but there are still a few drying shreds stuck to the bones and one or two detached bits scattered about. (That, for instance, was definitely a wing. At some stage.) But the skeleton is otherwise sound: viewed from close up, it has a keel, it resembles something reliable, something structural, something from a shipyard. My job is to put the chicken back on the bones, make it into a chicken again. If I have to I will counterfeit the missing items. There will be a point soon when it looks whole and glazed and steaming from the oven, as if it actually exists as a thing and is now ready to be used; as if it’s at the beginning of its journey rather than the end. That point will come soon, if I know what I’m doing.

who’s dead & who’s alive

Disconnected memories. Uncertainty of events and entities in their “relationship” with reality. The author positioned like Maxwell’s demon, feeling able to claim that this is the inside & that is the outside (the conscious & unconscious, the forgotten & remembered, the admissible & the inadmissible). Calculatedly inefficient filters will be placed at points of transition represented as boundaries and edgelands. The hiatus or glitch, the dropped catch or stitch between the living & the written.

cold grit

“You’d have to be mental,” Sankey said, “to go climbing in this.”

Nevertheless you can see him on the polaroid I took that afternoon, his bright orange waterproof jacket blowing out behind him like a comic book cape as he stands anxiously looking up at Normal who is stalled out halfway up the crag. The picture deteriorated in some way — perhaps because of the cold — soon after it was taken, chemical changes giving the light a dead green cast and making the rock look black and featureless. Normal seems to be pasted on to it, one arm raised wearily. The snow is the same colour as the sky, and only a row of little outcrops marks the division between the two.

These few buttresses of rough grit, heavily pebbled with quartz and perched like boulders on the skyline, are nice to come to on a summer evening, when the hang gliders lie out on the shallow slopes beneath them in the golden light like exhausted butterflies. The day I took the Polaroid we could hear each separate gust of wind building up miles away across the moor before it burst round the aretes on to us, whipped Normal’s rope out into a tight parabolic curve, and whirled off down the valley to strafe the sheep. There was snow packed into all the cracks. When we excavated it we found hard ice underneath, as shiny as solidified Superglue. Our noses ran. The wind pulled the strings of mucus out grotesquely, so that during the instant before they snapped they floated with all the elegance of spider-silk. Our fingers went numb, only to come back to life twenty or thirty feet up, at just the wrong moment, the size of bananas and throbbing with hot-aches.

Eventually Normal had to give in and come down.

“It’s no good. I can see what to do but I can’t convince myself to do it.”

His hands were curled up and broken-looking from the cold. They were bleeding where he had knocked them without knowing on the rock. He pulled his mittens on with his teeth and for a while all three of us huddled beneath a big undercut, where it was a bit warmer. But the wind got in under the lip of it and drove ice into our faces, and soon that became a misery too.

“It’s no good.”

Normal and Sankey began to pack up the gear, stuffing ropes and harnesses untidily into their rucksacks.

“It seems a bit brighter over there,” I said.

“It always seems a bit bloody brighter over there.”

–from Climbers, 1989.

you must never say this

At their most human, writers seem like animals unable to remember the behaviour that would properly define them–as with Russell Hoban’s zoo turtles, forbidden to make their vast signature journeys. Only this isn’t the result of captivity. No one did this to anyone–it’s just loss or confusion. That seems even more tragic. People soon learn to be people, but writers try something else and from quite early on in their lives it doesn’t work out, so they keep on trying it, writing their way round the tank.

the problem of writing is always the problem of who you were

Sometimes a writing problem will begin to resolve itself when you recognise that you haven’t been acknowledging pivotal events in your life. You’ve changed without knowing it. You were looking in the wrong place for solutions because you were looking in the wrong place for yourself. This recognition, however, doesn’t provide automatic or short-term relief. It’s unlikely to be a professional solution. The problem of writing is always the problem of who you were, always the problem of who to be next. It is a game of catch-up, of understanding that what you’re failing to write could only be written by who you used to be. Who you are now should be writing something else: what, you won’t know until you try.

–Originally posted as “what you won’t know”, January 11th, 2013.

I don’t know what happened to the bear

I dreamed I was running away from a bear down some institutional corridor. It was a big bear, like a grizzly, light brown, but not grungy or used-looking the way a real bear would be, with drool etc. The layout was this: to begin with, the bear was outside in the car park, the other side of the main doors. But I knew it would get in. Before that happened I had to run up a short flight of stairs & close another set of doors behind me; then run down the corridor, closing doors at intervals behind me. Each time I opened & closed one set of doors, I knew that the bear had reached & opened the previous set. Then I had to run up another short flight of stairs and climb an old-fashioned indoor climbing wall. Just before the top, the wall flared radically & the holds got progressively hard to use. You were quite high up by then. This dream’s anxieties were based on repetition: every time I got near the top of the wall, I found myself back at the outer doors. I had to do that seven times. I had to run up the short stairs, open & slam the door; run down the corridor, opening & slamming all the doors; run up the stairs at the end; & climb the wall. To start with, it was fun. It was easy. The bear was slow & puzzled & not in any way used-looking. The wall was, to be honest, a piece of piss. But each repetition took it out of me, & the wall seemed harder. Even so, I was ok on it. In fact each time I did it, I found a new, interesting solution to the overhang: until the seventh time. The seventh time I realised that I’d chosen a complex, unreversible sequence of smooth, sloping holds; that as the overhang pushed me out it was also inevitably pushing me off the holds; and that though I wasn’t sure this solution would work, my strength was running out. I was committed. I had to put most of my body weight on the final, oblique sloper & make a long, awkward reach for the top, which was in itself sloping. I don’t know what happened to the bear. By then the bear wasn’t the issue.

the sort of book that might appear in a short story in a collection just like this

Ghosts being such rich contributors to the tradition, the very first item on Philip Hensher’s shopping list of best British short stories is “A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs Veal” by Daniel Defoe. Defoe’s opening clause, “This thing is so rare in all its circumstances”, which Penguin have printed on the back board of the first volume, might be a statement of intent on behalf of the form itself. The most abject of short stories must make this claim, if no other, somewhere in its content, or structure; many, of course, fail to deliver on it… More

My review of The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, in the TLS today.


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