the m john harrison blog

frost & fog

“This mite’s sins are nothing to some I’ve had to swallow,” boasted the sin eater. He was a dark, energetic man of middle height and years, always nodding his head, rubbing his hands or shifting his weight from one foot to the other, anxious to put the family at their ease. “They’ll taste of vanilla and honey compared to some.” No-one answered him, and he seemed to accept this readily enough–he had, after all, been privy in his life to a great deal of grief. He looked out of the window. The tide was ebbing, and the air was full of fog which had blown in from the sea. All along Henrietta Street, out of courtesy to the bereaved family, the doors and windows were open, the mirrors covered and the fires extinguished. Frost and fog, and the smell of the distant shore: not much to occupy him. The sin-eater breathed into his cupped hands, coughed suddenly, yawned. “I like a wind that blows off the land myself,” he said.

–from “The Sin Eater”, 1983.

victoria’s house

“It’s very Brexit up here,” she wrote later to Short. “Eight pubs in a mile and deep surrounding woods. I already think of it as my Broceliande, although the High Street seems to have been deforested as early as 1307.” She was sleeping on the sofa again, she told him. “But now I have candles and everything.” Inside one of the boxes she had found a brand new edition of The Water Babies. She amused herself copying out passages for him. Little Tom was naughty. He ran across the fells, by Hartover and Lewthwaite Crag, to the river; he arrived at the water on his own legs but he was desperate to be a fish. “Forty pages in, he’s already an evolutionary joke, the Victorian fantasia of metamorphosis and transition camouflaged by a morality. You see,” she finished, “you should read my emails. I bet your life’s less exciting than little Tom’s.” She knew she would never press Send: but writing was enough to give the effect of being in a conversation. It calmed her down. “I might be keeping my mother’s furniture,” she admitted. “I sold all mine.” This made her think of the house again and she looked around and shivered with delight.

climbing is weird

I told R we were doing so well I was thinking of trying to find a way back into writing about it. I forgot that with climbing you don’t need to do that. You only have to wait. We went to Froggatt. Sunday morning, around ten. A fine drizzle in drifting patches, with proper rain forecast, had kept the car parks empty. We found the crag empty too. Soon, people would start driving over from Stanage, which was piss wet through. For now everything was eerily silent and belonged to us. Not an experience you expect in the Peak District in June. The rock was bone dry, with lots of friction; we’d gone to do really easy routes but after an early success, got tempted by Sunset Crack. R floated up; while my memories of the 1985/95 decade, when routes like that were still a soft touch, earned me the quiet, careful slap I deserved: I stayed aboard but only just. I felt every year of my age. Gritstone is always in charge, even in the lower grades. Gritstone decides what you’ll feel, what kind of fun you’ll have, what kind of lesson comes along with it. That’s why some like it & some don’t. When we got down we found, on the warm shelf of rock under the start, this tiny dead thing.

Apart from being dead it was still in perfect condition. It was laid out with two foxglove bells, something yellow & a couple of bits of greenery (which R moved to take the picture). Had it been there all along? Or had it been put there while we climbed? Neither, or even both, was his opinion. Some kind of different physics was in operation. I’m not quarrelling with that because he’s the physicist. On the way back we went to Brookside Buttress–which, unfrequented and unpolished, with turf still growing on the easy way down, sitting in a mossy gully next to its own little water feature, is the perfect Gothic crag–and did a route neither of us had ever been on. What more can you ask?

photo: Richard AL Jones

hard boiled

I thought we should put the laundry out despite the weather forecast. After all, I said, it wasn’t going to rain in secret. We could always run out & bring it in back in. I was at that time more worried about the noise the washing machine had started to make. It sounded like an entry-level Mazda coupe being retuned for the son or daughter of a small businessman. No washing machine should make a noise like that, I said. But if I’ve learned anything from life since, it’s that they all make a noise like that in the end.

Solstice in the provinces. It’s hot. There’s no government in the country at the moment. To get the air moving, I have an old black rucksack holding open the study door. Every time I glimpse it out of the corner of my eye I mistake it for a cat I used to have. It’s too big to be a cat, but I never owned a dog. Outside, a man has parked a low-loader so that it blocks the little roundabout at the top of the High Street and left it idling there while he makes some sort of decision more important than anyone else’s that morning. Every so often he returns and moves it ten or twelve yards back or forward, always keeping it on the curve of the roundabout, always blocking as many exits as possible. Then he sits in it with his thick hands on the steering wheel, looking straight ahead while the engine runs. Around him the year tips over into whatever’s coming next.

dream

I was living in a house I didn’t know in a city I didn’t know. The people who lived there were young. They were cheerful, although their faces had a certain toughness, a certain wariness. The house had a lot of rooms. I left objects of mine, including my personal identification and a laptop with new work on it, in various of them. While I was anxious about this I wasn’t worried. I kept track of my things by rehearsing their positions in each room. I visited every room regularly to check that everything remained in its place. Everything was fine until I began to notice that the house was badly built. Living spaces had been constructed out of what had clearly been a condemned building. Then I began to forget where my things were. As I went from room to room looking for them, the house revealed itself as even more badly built. Some of the rooms had collapsing floors. Ceilings and walls seemed solid but were made of draped tarpaulin. The stairs moved under you. First I forgot where my belongings were. Then I realised that I was beginning to forget the layout of the building too. I wasn’t sure which rooms I had visited and which I hadn’t. The structure was increasingly unstable. Lath and rafters showed through. The rooms trembled and wallowed as I moved. My panic increased. I had lost all my objects. I had lost all sense of where I was. I had lost all my identifiers. I didn’t recognise anyone in the house. When I looked out of a window I realised that I had forgotten what country the city was in. I went out there and began to wander about. At first I was absolutely certain where the house was.

transcript of an interview

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Photo: Cath Phillips

states of play

Available: Viriconium, The Centauri Device, Climbers, Light, Nova Swing, Empty Space, “Babies from Sand”, “Cave & Julia” and “Fourth Domain”. Out of print: The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life, Things That Never Happen. Unlikely ever to be reprinted, although a couple of the stories in it turn out to be not quite as bad as I remembered: The Machine in Shaft Ten. Forthcoming: “Yummie” (The Weight of Words, ed McKean & Schafer, 2017), You Should Come With Me Now (short stories, Comma Press 2017). In progress: “English Heritage”, a ghost story, and “Autotelian Journey”; and two novels, The Water House, very odd, and The Future, a shadowy & bizarre post-apocalypse with sturdy links to the 2014 short story “The Crisis”.

What’s happening about the Signs of Life, Course of the Heart and Things That Never Happen reprint schedule seems as shadowy & bizarre as any of the Beige Ops in this notorious programme; but I’m hoping they’ll see the light again, one way or another, before I cough it.

gifco is here

Those who have failed to regulate the self. Those whose behaviours enact a medicating fiction. Those who flew to the Canary Islands on a cheap ticket in December 1991 & left the remains of their personality in the apartment hotel. Those who ran from everything in a zig-zag pattern, so fast they never found the transitional object. The unsoothed. The dysmorphic. The unconditional. Those who were naive enough to take what they needed & thus never got what they wanted & whose dreams are now severe. Those who were amazed by their own hand. The confused. The pliable. Those who look at the sea & immediately suffer a grief unconstrained but inarticulable. Gifco is coming. Gifco you are always with us. Gifco we are here!

Photo: the other Nick Royle.

Originally published here in 2012 as “those who know gifco”