the m john harrison blog

When you look at your life & whisper, “Oh no, that’s not it; that’s not it at all.” But also, though you can so easily see what it wasn’t, you haven’t one single clue to what it was. Except for these indistinct images with their horizon lines invisible but seriously aslant, in a format no one uses any more. They’re disconnected—from you, each other & everything else. How can they be compiled—at this late, malign date—into a record of anything.

the idea you have

The idea you have when you’re young, to reach the edge of what can be done with your abilities and find out what might happen if you went past it? You promise yourself you’ll try but then wake up fifty years later to discover that you were in fact always too sensible to push things until they fell over, in case people thought less of you. In your seventies, though, it doesn’t seem to matter any more what other people think. That’s probably the first phase of your life in which you can actually do what you want. And certainly the last.

what you see is what you get

so cassandra wanders a bowlesian inner landscape wondering what to predict next & by dawn all she can think to do is sit by the road & hold up a sign that begs HOW CAN YOU MISPLACE A CONTINENT. her teeth ache. meanwhile, palinurus, having fallen from the boat yet again, drives up & down this once-popular resort coast still trying to work out where he is. two mysterious brothers sit outside the cafe on the shingle.

the sea is what you get, but whose sacrifice will this be in the end.

funny weather

I fell in love with Olivia Laing’s writing when her The Lonely City convinced me that in writing “about alienation” for forty years I had probably been writing about loneliness, and the loneliness had probably been my own.

Laing is a real writer: that is, someone who loves the work and its relation to the subject matter. She also seems to me to have engaged and merged two important problems, how you relate writing to living (how the writer avoids becoming trapped by the discourse, so that the lived always grounds the written, not the other way round); and how you connect writing to politics–how the writer sites herself at the heart of politics yet remains a writer.

Prior to reading her new book, Everybody,  I re-read her essays. Collected from the art magazine Frieze and elsewhere, they settle easily under the title of her Frieze column, Funny Weather. They cover more than art. Even when they cover art, they cover more than art. Her goal is to look for art’s reparative relationship with the world’s recent Gibsonian emergencies–emergencies that are here but, like the future, still in the process of being evenly distributed.

Everybody is a multiple superposition of the physical body, the cultural body, the body of history, the body of art, the body politic, charting, as Lisa Appignanesi puts it, its “pleasures and pains, its fragilities, and endurance in the long 20th century”. It’s about what tied us up and how we tried to free ourselves, personally and socially; and what we gained and lost in the processes we chose. From a writerly point of view, what leaves me as bemused as ever is Laing’s ability to make imagery and argument at the same time, entangling the two so that neither seems to have the primacy and they run one through the other like seams of ore. Which is which? Figure and ground: here, the body flickers constantly between the two. This is what lies at the heart of the best contemporary nonfiction writing–the art of interleaving history, science and poetry, the observed personal and the political, the literal and the metaphorical–and I wish I knew how to do it.


ch ch ch changes

I’ve changed agents.

I’d like to thank Mic Cheetham for a fantastic twenty or so years as my representative. Without her enthusiasm, toughness of character and 100% backing, not to say her eye for a concept & her unfailing sense of humour, I wouldn’t have written Light, Nova Swing & Empty Space; without those books I wouldn’t have broadened my idea of what was possible. Thanks, Mic. I owe you.

I’ll now be represented by Will Francis at Janklow & Nesbit. All professional enquiries to Will.

unwritten beginning

As a teen I spent a lot of time in the public library, especially after I started truanting. But I never felt I belonged there, any more than I belonged anywhere else. The library’s offer lay not in its sense of community but in its sense of being unoccupied. It was empty a lot of the time, especially during the day. No one bothered you. You were left alone to follow the shelves like disused railway lines. Leading towards what? Something to read, anyway. You heard very little. No one came near you much. It seemed like the calmest, least anxiety-ridden place to truant to. For an hour or so it could be your space. Of course, the books themselves became spaces. I think that was an error, to regard a book as having an interior, as being a world rather than a written thing. Somewhat later, around the age of thirty, by which time I had already written books of my own, I had to take time to extract myself from what had become an unexamined assumption.

Previous post: I forgot to add that a new short story, “English Heritage”, will be published soon as one of Nick Royle’s beautifully produced Nightjar Press editions. It’s 4,000 words and very much in the tradition of the modernist ghost story, having the vibe of the second & third volumes of Cynthia Asquith’s Ghost Book, some of my favourite reading when I was twelve. Usual rules will apply: limited edition, signed & numbered, and when it’s gone, it’s gone: so get in early if you want one. I’ll give plenty of warning here & on Twitter.

the sunken land continues to rise

TSL is already my most successful novel. Nothing prepared me for the Goldsmiths prize; or for Russell T Davies’s recent fantastic & heartwarming review over on Instagram. It’s out in paperback in the UK now, & also available for preorder in the US and Canada.

In other news, the next book, tentatively entitled Fall Lines, or perhaps Fault Lines, or perhaps something else altogether, is finished and taking its first charming baby steps into what it sees as a shiny new world of possibility. It’s a compiled anti-memoir; a heavily fragmented nonfiction doped with fictional elements; a kind of How-to-Write; and a meditation on the impossibility of a coherent self (let alone the self’s looking back). An early responder called it “a book that invents a form and teaches you how to read it as you go along”. We shall have to hope that’s a good practical assessment.

It has an accompanying secret project, very exciting, more of which when everything’s sorted out.

Meanwhile, a new novel potters along, trying to understand the difference between disaster as its own retrospective & disaster as a series of moments in what used to be called “current affairs”. Clearly, one of the things both the classic 1950s disaster novel and the contemporary disaster novel got wrong was to regard the catastrophe as a complete object–an historical event with identifiable timelines and identifiable causalities, explorable as if by hindsight–rather than the patchy, emergent & incoherently combinative process it appears to be to its subjects as it unscrolls.

The big question today is: in a slow disaster like ours, when do you give up and admit that something has gone wrong? How does the prevailing culture persuade the frogs to stay in the pot? That is, to what extent will people learn to take it all for granted? And how grotesque might that look, late-ish on in the process? (Actually, it isn’t about any of that.)


“How it is” explanations. “What can’t be done” explanations. “Sorry, it’s never done that way” explanations. “If you have this thing you can’t have that other thing” (& the closely-related “If you’re this thing you can’t be that thing”) explanations. “Why you shouldn’t want what you want given the present state of play” explanations. All patiently-reasoned & reasonable explanations.

secrets of the gardens

This garden is paved and narrow but crowded with shrubs, mainly box, yew and privet, many of which have been carefully sculpted into cones, spheres, cylinders. None of them are much taller than a person. Distributed among them are some benches; a replica Edwardian streetlight; two small circular netted ponds with raised stone sides, containing fish; and an accurately coloured plastic rendering of a heron. The topiary forms are not Platonic, or even properly geometrical. They have a raggedness of outline. Their shapes are not quite right. The cylinders are tubby and their walls inconsistently vertical. A cone resembles an upended turnip. To the eye it will always have an organic nature but not its own nature. It will always be a reference to, a picture of, some other form. Yet sometimes, on a dull day, when a shaft of light strikes between the still shapes and picks out the plastic heron, the bird can seem almost real; observed like this, from the window of a neighbouring second-floor window, the whole becomes less like an illustration in an early 1950s children’s fantasy than something presiding and real.