the m john harrison blog

in the park

Obelisk on a base of eroded local stone. Several little gravestones commemorating Chumble, Coco, Bessie, Mollie, Porridge, pet names that could be equally for animals or people. “This must be where they buried the servants,” C says. Much of the stone in the park is laminated. Judging by the quarry in the bay at the north end of the lake, and the exposed rock in the cuttings, this is intrinsic & not much to do with subsequent erosion. It comes out of the ground wafery and brittle. From a distance, the pillars of the Ionic temple seem like ideal volumes; closer to they’re rippled, loose, faling apart into the same world as you. Leaden, coffin-shaped garden planters with a knot design, a rose design, their edges are battered, cut, used-looking. An empty plinth between yews. Walled garden: lines of ruined Victorian glasshouses; rusty iron curves; grubbed-up tree roots, charred looking and still clasping chunks of the glasshouse foundations two or three bricks on a side. Clee Hill slumps on the hot skyline, against architectural June cloud, while an unaccompanied Italian greyhound wanders disconsolately between the tables on the terrace and someone says, “I don’t like the smell of sweet peas, they’ve got an edge to them. Something musty underneath.”

“…the awful transmutation of the hills” –Arthur Machen



Now the dust has settled I can see that my 70th birthday books haul includes: A Philosophy of Walking, Frederic Gros; Henk Van Rensbergen’s superb Abandoned Places; The Illiterate, Agota Kristoff; The Slate Sea, poems & photographs, ed Paul Henry & Zed Nelson; Britain & Ireland’s Best Wild Places, Christopher Somerville; Dusk, Axel Hoedt; and The Near Death Thing by Rick Broadbent, interviews with Manx TT riders. To help me navigate this complex territory I have in addition a 1930s quarter-inch map of North Wales & Manchester. I’m going to start by running Gros & Broadbent concurrently.

SC visits for one night. She’s over here to sell her place in Barnes, where I was her tenant for fourteen years. She’s committed to the States now, she thinks, looking after an ageing mother in Pennsylvania, teaching at Juillard, & may not be back again. We talk about age & death. As she’s getting into the rental Volkswagen to drive to Richmond next morning, I think for a brief moment how the wind round the house–any house, but this one in particular, with its complicated roofs–sounds just a little too much like the wind in a 1960s Japanese movie. This year seemed to start out full of promise; now it’s just one lesson after another, all of them about the same thing.

we can deal with this

Tall old guy in running gear–not new, not old, perfectly neat but on the perfect edge of shabby–which says, “These clothes are thin but I’m thinner”–standing on the apron of the Ogwen Interpretation Centre looking out at the rain. We exchange the old guy look, which is often accompanied by a minute shrug & in this case means, “What the fuck is an Interpretation Centre, other than Euromoney turned into the lousiest architecture and emptiest content you’ve ever seen? What is an Interpretation Centre, other than an expensive drying-room in which these sodden D of E kids can cluster, drip and shout while they stuff down the hydrogenated fats?” Then he gives me a good-natured smile, as if to add, “We know all this and don’t begrudge it. We know all this about the weather in Idwal, dirty weather streaming down the slabs, slopping in your shoes, blackening the lake, one seagull in the saturated air, & yet we’re still here, still in Ogwen though Ogwen no longer quite represents an experience of itself we understand.” It isn’t a weak smile, it’s a frail unbreakable one, as strong and languid as his running style, a smile that’s learned such a lot, waiting all these years for the rain to stop.

thieves, rogues & chancers

Can anyone help me locate a book? Title & author long forgotten. Popular in the late 1960s & 70s. It claimed to be the memoirs of a criminal–I think a Frenchman–who had sold arms & drugs around the Mediterranean in the preceding twenty or thirty years. His prison experiences featured. That’s all I can remember. Maybe it was a Corgi paperback. It was a kind of cross between Genet and Shantaram. & is there a name for this genre–very popular in the 1920s & 30s? The reminiscences of thieves, rogues & chancers who portray themselves as politicised?

a glaze composed of human fats

For the first time in my life I have an “office”, so obviously I work on a laptop at one end of the kitchen table, hemmed in by all the bits & pieces–books under review, phone, meds, plates of half-eaten sardine sandwiches & scraps of torn paper on which someone has scratched hastily, “is it a function of genre, or genre-under-PoMo, or genre lensed by massive conscious access to its own legacy product? Or all of that?” It’s fine. C is in London, working for the man. The kitchen is quiet apart from the weird buzzing of the fluorescent fitment & the raw stupid constant barking of next door’s dogs, who are as shut out as ever & still can’t believe it. As soon as I took possession of that “office” up there at the top of the house, I made a rule that I would never keep in it anything useful to my trade, e.g. a filing cabinet, say, or a phone, or books, especially books by me; nor would I have pictures on the wall or keep anything you could associate with writing in the French shabby-chic glass cabinet I bought during some kind of fugue or psychotic break at the Stretton antiques market on a wet summer afternoon in 2013. The real feature of that room is not what does or doesn’t go on in there: it’s the floorboards, which look as if they were hand-trimmed two hundred years ago & never treated & thus have concentrated to themselves a thick patina or glaze composed of human fats & spillages & soot molecules from the real Industrial Revolution, which everyone who lives here knows took place in Broseley, not at the better-known World Heritage Site down the road. They are like iron. I am in love with those floorboards & man enough say it. But look, all those years I graphically described the crimes I would do to get a room of my own, what do they mean now? It’s possible, before your life knits itself back together, to write half a novel in the university offices & shonky rentals in bad circumstances of six different acquaintances in as many months.


A garden lawn should be like a round green pool, especially in twilight. It shouldn’t be large. The plantings around it–foxgloves & monbretia, gladeoli, huge hollyhocks, night-scented stocks–should lean over the smooth dark turf as if they’re leaning out over water. There should be a sense of seclusion, as if the plantings stretch away in all directions, too thick to walk in & steadily changing their nature from tended to untended. At one end, a gap between well-grown fuschias allows access; at the other, under an arch thick with white rambler roses, two or three steps lead to a lower garden you can’t quite see. Under the arch the lawn gathers & brims & curves. There’s a faint sense of water falling away quietly the other side. One late evening in early July–really, it’s almost dark–you watch a dragonfly hunting over the grass; & without thinking–but never hurrying–you take off your clothes & walk into the lawn & swim to the other side, where you sit in the scent of roses & stocks & stare for a moment or two into the lower garden & the gathering dark before you take the worn slippery steps down. Not even the briefest look back.

something to remember

Yes, prescription drugs are funded by the UK taxpayer. But this is done according to an allocation of funds determined by us, the voters. The NHS is the vehicle by which we have chosen to have our health services delivered to us. It is not a charity, it is not a gift from government and our prescriptions are not given at Jeremy Hunt’s largesse.

–Ann Robinson, Guardian, today.

age wars

The middle aged–that is, those between about thirty five and fifty years old–are afraid of the way old people view the world. They pretend that this view is a criminal ideology for which they have a fine and organised political contempt. They have a duty to root it out. It is an issue. They also pretend that their own faux juvenility (sustained precariously in the face of first the true juvenility then the growing adulthood of their own children) is less an evasion than a special kind of sensibility, one that has to be fought for and that possesses a high political value. What they’ll feel when they come round to old age themselves, I don’t know; one of the great surprises of being old is that whoever you were back then you’ve seen what happens and you couldn’t care less about it any more. That was the discovery you were so determined not to make when you were middle aged. Now you have, you’re stuck with it and it becomes the foundation of your ideological crime. The thing to do is feel no guilt. Life is a series of narratives–all false–learned then unlearned.


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