the m john harrison blog

victoria & the multiplication of selves (email)

“Alex, of course I wasn’t obsessed by the real you. Of course I was obsessed with a fantasy. But I always knew that. It was a story I told. It was a kind of entertainment, conscious but immersive. What I’ve only just discovered is that I was also obsessed by a fantasy of me. That one wasn’t so conscious! That one was rather too immersive! But now I’ve applied to myself the clear vision you believe I wasn’t applying to you, I find that the me I really am wasn’t really interested in either of us. I don’t know where that leaves the you you really are.”

If Enceladus was a bit smaller, you could keep it on your window sill with the pot plant & the bit of flint shaped like your mother. Don’t tell me you haven’t got a pot plant or a bit of flint. Or a few shells.

how we can know it

All journeys are enchanted.

It isn’t so much that the landscape distracts you, as that something about the motion of the train — something about the very idea of constant, rushing, forward movement — makes you restless and slow to settle to anything. You read a few pages of a book and look out at some swans on a canal. A newspaper opened suddenly just down the carriage sounds like rain spattering on the window. Another chapter and you make your way down to the buffet or the lavatory. Between each event a rev- erie pours itself, as seamless as golden syrup, as smooth as the motion of the train. You wonder what the weather will be like in Leeds or Newcastle, turn to the Independent to find out, read: “The world economy is likely to remain subdued.”

Looking up from these words to a landscape of hedges and ponds, copses and little embankments, the Ephebe sees with amazement a strange vehicle bounding along beside the railway line.

In a long, complex frame of metal tubing, suspended on four tractor wheels, are cradled: an engine wrapped round with copper pipes and sheaves of old electrical wiring; clusters of what seem to be household butane gas bottles; and, well to the rear, the padded seat of some old-fashioned military jet, into which is strapped a man. Gouts of earth and water spray up from its enormous wheels. From time to time this whole machine seems to be consumed by a kind of radiant discharge, through which its driver or pilot can be seen helplessly or furiously waving his arms.

Is he a prisoner of his vehicle? Or does he prefer to drive on the edge of disaster like this? He is a wasted old man. When it can be seen, his face runs the gamut of expression, wild with fear one moment, laughing with excitement the next. His long gray hair blows back in the slipstream. His lips contort. He has fastened himself into a tight brown leather suit along the arms and legs of which run clusters of Neoprene tubing. Out of these at intervals erupt thick colored fluids, which splatter over his chest or into his eyes. Though he blinks furiously, he suffers the indignity without harm: but wherever the machine is touched it blackens and smokes briefly, and lightning writhes along its chassis members.

One huge wheel flies off suddenly into the air. The old man claps his hands to his face. At that moment the train enters a tunnel, and the Ephebe can see only himself, reflected in the window.

If the appearance of the machine has filled him with astonishment, its disappearance leaves him with a curious mixture of elation and anger he can neither understand nor resolve. By the time he is able to unclench his hands and wipe his forehead, the train has left the tunnel for open plowland across which spills a tranquil evening light. Wrestling desper- ately with one another, the old man and his machine have passed back into the dimension from which they came, where they leap and bucket and belly their way forever through rural England, scattering clods of earth, steam, small bushes and dead animals. But in the palm of the Ephebe’s hand remains a small, intricately machined metal item, melted at one end to slag.

This he brings home with him. For months it remains warm to the touch, as if it had only lately been thrown out of the hearth of the heart.

–from “The Horse of Iron & How We Can Know It & Be Changed By It Forever”, 1988.

some basically insoluble mystery

Sand came up like a fog from the beach and when I next looked he was gone.

I studied his business card. “Gift Company,” I read.

What had he offered us? I only knew it was unsuitable and wrong. But sometimes, now, when I look through the notebook in which I wrote all this down, and the dust in its creases — just blown from mainland Africa to make a beach in the Atlantic Ocean — I wish we had accepted.

Again, perhaps we did accept. This is how he made you feel. As if there was some residue, some basically insoluble mystery behind or beneath or in some way prior to the rubbishy white hotels, beach bars and endless Cambios. As if even Playa los Americas, one of the trashiest places on earth, had some secret nothing to do with cheap stereos, expensive leather goods and English beer. Something you can sense where a brand new road runs out suddenly in builders’ waste and prickly pear; or at the top of a low hill, in some unfinished concrete building that looks like a multistory car park; or in the amused eyes of the stray dogs of the seafront.

“Gift Company,” we read. Perhaps we did accept.

from “GifCo”, 1997.

victoria’s gift

They met at a pub on King Street Hammersmith then ate tandoori trout at one of the new upmarket Indians just along from the Premier Hotel. Victoria seemed nervous.

“How do you like my hair?” she said.

Thinned out in some way, centre-parted, chopped off with a kind of calculated incompetence a little above the jawline, it clung lankly to the sides of her face and head, curling out tiredly at the ends. “Neo-bluestocking,” she said. “Very effective from certain angles, though I can see you don’t think so.” Over the evening she drank a bottle of house red– “Nothing to see here. No change here” –and talked about her car. Alex said he would stick to beer. When he said he wasn’t much of a driver, she looked down at the charred tails and dyed red flesh of the remains of their meal, the filmy bones like the fossil imprint of a leaf, and said, “Who is? It’s not really about driving. I go to the coast a lot now.” She laughed and made confused steering wheel motions. “Up and down. Hastings and Rodean. Very slowly. Dungeness, of course.” Then: “I think I’ve grown out of London.” And finally: “I love the little spines of these fishes, don’t you?”

“All I see,” said Alex, “is my dinner.”

He then admitted: “I was in a bit of a state when we last met.”

“You aren’t all that much improved.” She laughed at his expression. “Come on! I should talk! I don’t believe I’ve been entirely sane since I was thirteen–”

Alex filled her glass again. “Is that when you saw the corpse?” he said, hopefully.

“–although I did have a moment of clarity in a sauna in about 2005.” She stared around the restaurant as if expecting to see someone she knew. “Eventually you take what you can get where that’s concerned. You have to feel you’re steadying down.”

“There’s some value to that,” Alex agreed, though he had no idea what she was talking about.

“Actually, I’m not even sure it should be called clarity,” she said.

She was too drunk to drive. They left the car where she had parked it in Hammersmith and walked back to 17 Wharf Terrace along the river. There, she poked around his room as if she was out for a bargain in used furntiure. “The bed’s a bit small,” she said, looking at him brightly. Picking through his books, she found a John Fowles; made a face. “You can’t like any of his stuff. Not really.” Then: “And is this the famous shared wall!” She tapped with one knuckle, as if sounding the ancient plaster for its weaknesses. She put her ear to it. “He seems quite quiet now, your unknown nemesis.” Alex found something else they could drink–the end of a litre of Absolut so old the shoulders of the bottle were sticky with all the condensed grit airs of London–and, sitting on the edge of the bed, unwrapped the housewarming present. “Look at that!” she said, as if their roles were reversed and he had given it to her. It was made of silver, with an articulated body five or six inches long and hinged sidefins. “It’s Peruvian,” she said. “It’s a fish. It’s quite old.”

Alex weighed the fish in his hand, moved one of the fins cautiously. Its scales were tarnished and cold. “Hi fish,” he said.

“See,” Victoria said. “You like it. You like it already.”

victoria adopts

“I hate the noise saucepans make,” she told the cat. “People always know you’re at home when they hear the saucepans clanging about in the kitchen.”

The cat stared up at her.

“You don’t say much, do you?” she said.

Later she went out to the Spa and bought two tins of catfood.

“We’ll try you on this,” she said. “But if you get expensive, off you go.” After it had eaten and licked around its face a bit, she picked it up and took it to the back door. “And out you go at night,” she said.

The cat miaowed at the door until she let it back in.

alchemical

Blake, Peckham and “the tree of angels”. The sheer willpower needed to envisage something. Even a memory has to be forced back into existence, and for all your effort what do you get? An artefact if you’re lucky, something not quite right in the corner of your eye. The exhausting effort to understand exactly what it is you’re trying to see. The exhausting effort to keep focus. The mad daily struggle against all the side issues that offer themselves. The struggle to keep the symbology intact/exact. I don’t care about anything else in writing now, as long as I get that part right. Everything else can follow along, rag tag and bobtail. Everything else is better that way any way.

I’ve been more or less bored & angry most of my life, but until recently I haven’t been so consistently amused. Motives have never seemed so visible.

DSCF8349

country matters

The bothy, a long single-storey wooden structure which had once housed the unmarried male servants of the local fox hunt (an institution known in its heyday as “the Ampney”), stood in the middle of a field next to a few courses of brick and an overgrown cobbled yard. It was a shed, really, already cold in the afternoon, its untreated cement floors polished by decades of use. There was a kitchen at one end, a storage unit full of rusting bed frames and plastic-wrapped supermarket pallets of dog-food at the other. Between them, five or six empty rooms opened off a narrow windowless passage lighted by a single twenty watt bulb. To the extent that he had any, the boy had moved his belongings into the kitchen, where it was relatively warm. Two shelves held packets of cereal, tins of baked beans and 8%-proof lager. A single bed was pushed up against the wall in one corner. “I don’t need much,” he said. “I was never much for things.” There was a paraffin heater but no kettle. He made tea using lukewarm water straight from an ancient Creda heater mounted on the wall above the sink and paid his rent directly to “them down the fields”, who had acquired the bothy in some cash-free transaction he didn’t understand, and who sometimes dragged a bed into one of the other rooms for weekend use.

“It’s cheap enough,” he said.

The only contemporary thing in the kitchen was a reconditioned laptop from the early 2000s, wired into the overhead light socket through a brownout-protector. “It’s all in here,” he said, with a kind of shy irony: “My life.” He showed as much pride in the machine as in his uploads to YouTube. These unsteady, ill-lit glimpses, caught on a pocket camcorder, didn’t even seem cruel, only difficult to interpret. Jittery ellipses and smears of whitish light appeared and disappeared suddenly in a black rectangle. They picked out a hedge, a patch of long grass in a field, a fence post at an odd angle. Something zigzagged into the light and out of it again. Something else turned and turned and vanished suddenly into a hedge. At the end of each clip there was the boy, an ethereal smile on his face, holding up dead rabbits by their ears. Once, the dogs put up a deer, which stared at them then walked slowly out of camera. He had set some of the videos to contemporary pastoral music, others to thirty-year-old Death Metal. Watching them galvanised him all over again, the way a passing scent had once galvanised his dogs. He sat on the bed next to Anna. There was nowhere else to sit. She could feel him trembling with excitement. “What do you think ?” he asked her. ”What do you think of that!”

Once she had got over her distaste, Anna felt bored. She was glad when he turned off the computer and with a smile half diffident, half sly, pushed her down. “Let me get these jeans off you,” she said. She laughed. “They could do with a wash.” And later: “You’re hurting me a little bit.” He went on without seeming to hear and soon she had forgotten, the way you forget the creak and bang of the bed or the people coming and going in the corridor outside a hotel room. To fuck at all is a blessing. He wasn’t Tim Waterman, but he wasn’t Michael Kearney either, and he got hard again as quickly as most boys.

Anna fell asleep. When she woke the bothy was cold and the boy was standing naked by the window gazing out across the fields towards the village. The light had begun to fade. Wisps of mist were already coming up over the river. He’d had enough for the moment, she could see. His back, whiter and thinner than she had expected, seemed vulnerable, illuminated from within. Anna watched him a minute or two, then gathered her clothes and began to get dressed. When she thought the time was right, she said:

“I’ve got some work I need doing.”

The boy made a movement with one shoulder, a shrug or perhaps a wince. He wasn’t looking for work, he said. He had enough work.

“What kind of work is it ?” he asked.

It wasn’t much, she said. It was just some painting.

He had enough of that kind of work, the boy said.

“I need someone to look at my bathroom,” Anna said. “I don’t live far. If you called later in the week, you could do the work I need.”

He moved his shoulder again and kept looking out of the window. “Those dogs of mine were company til the grey hare got across them.” Anna, receiving this as “grey hair”, had no idea what he meant. “That spoiled everything. I could talk to them until then.” As she was leaving he turned round and said, “I’ll come and see you though ? I’ll be coming to see you ?”

Anna touched his arm and smiled.

“Put your clothes on,” she said. “It’s cold in here.”

The lane outside had filled with mist, yet if you looked directly upward you could see the stars. Anna turned towards Wyndlesham, walking as briskly as she could. Once or twice she raised her arms in the air, or smiled for no reason. She wondered what had really happened to the dogs. Those lovely, lovely animals. Perhaps he’d sold them. Perhaps he’d just grown tired of them. I can’t imagine what Marnie will make of him, she thought: although it’s none of her business. She looked for her phone, couldn’t find it; stopped suddenly, brought both hands to her mouth and laughed. I can’t believe myself, she thought. When she looked back, the bothy seemed to hang without support in the gathering dusk. Everything it represented was history. Since the banking meltdown of 2007, the stable-block itself–built by John Ampney in the late 18th Century from locally-sourced brick and pantile and not then intended to house the hunt–had tracked closely the declining economic curve: redevelopment, first as prestige office space, then as a paintball “shoot house”; a decade of squatting and abandonment; finally, annexation by the local authority as Kent and Sussex struggled to contain thousands of Chinese economic refugees washing up in the old Cinque Ports; after which it had been allowed to fall down.

–from Empty Space, 2012

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