the m john harrison blog

do the fish

About half a mile away he found a dead man hidden by a corner of masonry that stood a little above waist height. Retz knelt down and studied him curiously. He lay as he had fallen while running away from someone, his limbs askew and one arm evidently broken. He was heavily built, dressed in a white shirt and black moleskin trousers tied up below the knees with red string. He had on a fish-head mask with lugubrious popping eyes, worn in such a way that if he had been standing upright the fish would have been staring into the sky. Green ribbons were tied round his upper arms. Beside him where he had dropped it lay a knife from which there rose, as it burned its way into the rubble, a steady stream of poisonous yellow motes. They had taken off his boots. His feet were decorated with veinous looking tattoos. Retz climbed on to the wall and looked thoughtfully both ways along the empty road. Then he jumped down again, to emerge ten minutes later dressed in the dead man’s clothes. The fish head had given him some trouble, but he had tied on the string and ribbons; and he had the knife.

from “Viriconium Knights”, 1977


DSCF5712For years I lived at the edge of the Sea of Artefacts, where great-looking stuff was washed up every day. People came & went: turnover was higher than you’d expect given the relaxed style, the constant good weather, the ease with which some sort of existence could be pursued. The explanation for that was, people took away the first thing they could carry & parlayed it into an income elsewhere. But the hard core of us hung on, out there shine or shine, throwing the small ones back, waiting for an item that would make us think. Our living structures glowed at night a hundred miles up and down the coast, their temporary qualities defining over the years a permanent aesthetic–whitened sticks, mirrors & rags, but to incorporate an Artefact would be considered bad taste as much as bad luck. Back from that, the hinterland was dark, maybe a little more threatening? There was poured concrete there, you would have to talk yourself through the bars and blockhouses to get your item out to market.


…thank you for sending me that thriller you thought I might say something about. Your outsourced editorial department has been very anxious to mend this book, but all they have done is procure a fatal collision between faux-Scandi & creative writing course. It reads like a failed Masterchef skills test. It’s not “stylish”. It’s as awkward & undercooked as all the other eager new commercial fiction. The prose is elephantine. It does not convey the excitement & tension it thinks it is conveying. The structure of the whole is as lumbering & literalistic as the sentences that comprise it. The characters have been made up to fit the plot, then visibly tweaked by someone who isn’t the writer–or indeed a writer–so that they fit a ten-year-old UK industry paradigm of relatability. The characters’ emotions are either leaden or leadenly depicted, it’s hard to tell which. The moral situations into which they have been inserted are dull. Their ideas about the world were interesting–even exciting–when the editor’s generation was young, but now they’re the unchallenged assumptions we all make daily.

volsie says

I see there’s been a certain amount of chaos in the garden overnight. The storm has scattered things about. How metaphoric. The lawn, particularly, looks as if the underlying tensions of Bill and Ben’s co-dependency finally found their predictable outlet. But anyway, welcome to World Post Antibiotic Day. The Post Antibiotic is often seen as a division of the so-called Anthropocene, which, Volsie says, may be the shortest-running epoch of them all if only because soon there’ll be no one around to observe it.


Implacable calm of the water. No horizon line. Heat blurs the edges of the air before eight in the morning. Distant objects–hikers on the cliffs, seabirds on the harbour mole–seem too large. Everything like a film, wrapped in cameraman sublime, documentary sublime. Light, silhouettes, warmth like a perfect saturated colour, all at once. South coast as Salton Sea. Wandering dazzled between the net shops and the fish stalls, I read “locally sourced” as “locally soured”; later, have a dream in which I am a painting by Anne Redpath. My whole life has become lodged in a few daisies, some grapes in a bowl. As the dream progresses I’m in more and more paintings. Whole rooms of myself, whole shows, stretch back for years, done out in the chalky greys of degreased paint. All my objects look calm but raw. Everything seems deliberately unfinished, wilfully unseen (or as-yet-unseen). A kind of indoor weathering has taken place on every surface. Every morning the shore is full of toddlers who don’t want to go somewhere. They’re sitting down, they’re kicking their legs, they’re repeating the same couple of words fifteen times in a row. You have to admire their commitment. But eventually even these athletes of the self will find themselves reconciled to the understanding that nothing you want–or don’t want–fits your fantasy of it, leaving you free not to want anything any more.

–reblogged from 2012

They come to your door, a man & a woman in their thirties very neat & well presented, smelling of soap, & they begin, “Hello, we’re just calling on people today–” & pause, & look puzzled because that doesn’t on its own seem to be enough to fetch a response from you, & eventually continue “–& thinking about all the conflicts in the world today, & how God might not seem to care–” & you’re seventy years old & you’ve seen enough & you really, absolutely & completely don’t know how to respond, & in the end clear your throat & manage, “I’m not interested in that,” which doesn’t seem to be sufficient or even true, then close the door slowly & stand in the hall looking down at the tiles & try to remember what you were doing before.

a few ideas

Something by Nicola Hicks. Something by Francis Bacon or Gerhard Richter. A bust of Michel Houllebecq. Busts of Michel Tournier & Ernst Junger, presented in alternate years. This. A bust of Joanne Greenberg. A Bredogue. A bust of Judy Garland. The bronzed baby shoes of Mabel Lucy Atwell. The bronzed baby shoes of the Brothers Quay. The bronzed baby shoes of Hildegard of Bingen. The gilded baby shoes of the One Percent. A rediscovered mural of Bruno Schulz. A perfectly realistic silk poppy. The Tenth Century ceramic icon of St Arethas. A representation on “reclaimed wood” of The Church Not Made With Hands. A large mounted specimen of Fordite. The gilded notebooks of Jan Svankmajer. Every year, in place of an award, a different 1970s performance artist makes eye contact with the winning author while driving a six inch nail through her own hand. Or: a different object is given every year. Or: some years no object is given at all, or the object is given late, or given to the wrong author. Something by Eleanor Crook. The reclaimed notebooks of Mabel Lucy Atwell. The reclaimed notebooks of Dino Buzzati. A signed photograph of Judy Garland. A certificate, signed after a public disagreement, by three of the four award judges. A bust of ST Joshi. No award.

the next war

…then, after a wonderful morning at the cenotaph we decided to go for a walk in the woods, which was rather spoiled by their being so muddy underfoot & our meeting a man not wearing a poppy. After Father had pointed out to him the disrespect inherent in this gesture, what did he do but harangue us for half an hour about some complicated political grudge he held? In the end, Father, indicating each of us in turn, gently asked him if he thought it right to bully innocent women and children in this way, & that seemed to be enough to calm him down; though he remained rough & humourless. Little Jenny, only eight years old, cleverly got his address from him, as a result of which, later, we were able to report him to the police.

seed banks

Katherine Carlyle is a frozen embroyo. Eight years later, she’s born. 19 years old, she’s living in Rome alone, receiving what she thinks of as “messages” from the near environment–a fifty-euro note (folded) found while crossing the piazza Farnese, a “small grey elephant with a piece of frayed string round its neck”. She’s leaving messages too, at least in a sense. For instance she’s having sex in a hotel on the via Palermo with a man she met five minutes ago, who smiles and calls her Mia piccola strega. Even her friend Dani thinks this a gesture too far. But soon she’s hearing a new, powerful message–a conversation in a cinema in which she picks out a name and the word “Berlin”. So now instead of going to Oxford university, she’s leaving for Germany. She’s erasing her computer files; she’s throwing her smartphone in the river. It’s time. Read the rest of my review of Rupert Thomson’s new novel, Katherine Carlyle, in the Guardian…

Friday is not my house
I’m coming round yours midnight
& steal the cats I love so much.
You can have your same old problem
Get one-up on those detectives
In the workplace, it won’t
Keep me off the case
Or cure the actors of acting.


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