the m john harrison blog

Month: June, 2008

we are an enduring lot

Elsewhere, stands of scrub had overgrown the old walls to make intimate sunken bays floored with turf. They looked like rooms in the intimacy of the western sun. You felt instantly calm. You felt instantly at home, until what you thought was a chalk bank, cut deeply by the footpath, revealed ends of brick. It was all going back to the earth. Landscape as a metaphor for the constructed had met & become tangled with the metaphor of the built environment, & they had collapsed into one another. It made you think about the sorts of things that architects said at the beginning of the last century, about the good effect of the right architecture on people’s lives. The sense that people could be cared for by the architects themselves, & architecture be a way of replacing the accidents of the vernacular, the disorderly provisions of the natural world.

Then, as you walked further up the hillside, everything opened out again suddenly to wide re-entrants grass-glowing in the sunlight, opened out to the long ridges dotted with isolated hawthorns and patches of burnet rose. The wind opened everything out and moved it along.


harission bag

Somebody arrived here yesterday by typing Harission Bag into Google. Computers may have a future after all.

unmoored in space & time

WG Sebald, “Ambros Adelwarth”:

“At this point, Ambros’s entries continue regardless of the dates in his diary. No one, he writes, could conceive of such a city … Every walk full of surprises, and indeed of alarm. The prospects change like the scenes in a play. One street lined with palatial buildings ends at a ravine. You go to a theatre and a door in the foyer opens into a copse…”

In Constantinople, Ambros becomes unmoored in space & time. Then, catching sight of Mount Olympus, “for one awful heartbeat” he imagines himself to be back in Switzerland “or at home again”. Later in life he tumbles into depression and presents himself voluntarily at the asylum, where they steadily wipe his brain clean with ECT. The reader ends up crying, without entirely knowing why.

Every time I read, I dredge up the same piece of knowledge about myself: I prefer books about lost people to books about found ones. It’s always a surprise.


You have to look at the major transitions of your life with a metaphor that makes aesthetic and emotional sense. That metaphor has to be waiting there in your unconscious to become available to you. You might be offered any number of public metaphors, but only the private one is of use.

What parts of the transition are you prepared to embrace ?

naked & singular

New Scientist on naked black holes: “For all we know, the singularity could be spitting out an apple pie, or an orchestra playing Beethoven’s ninth symphony…” I always felt it would be more like Toon Town in Who Killed Roger Rabbit ?; or a combination of that and the Brothers Quay.

usually a little shorter

WG Sebald, Austerlitz: “…Evan told tales of the dead… who knew they had been cheated of what was due to them and tried to return to life. If you had an eye for them they were to be seen quite often, said Evan. At first glance they seemed to be normal people, but when you looked more closely their faces would blur or flicker slightly at the edges. And they were usually a little shorter than they had been in life…” [p74/5, my ellipses.]

Evan also describes the dead as “only a little taller than the walls round the fields through which they went.”

The thing about these eerily specific images is that you aren’t being given “real” ghosts (although the anecdotes themselves have a real sense of being collected from life). They’re clues to Austerlitz’s PTSD. What he chooses to record is in itself part of his past’s mounting effort to burst out of him, but this isn’t evident until it happens. The effect is of a prolonged, almost unbearable latency. Austerlitz is a horror novel, as well as a novel of horror.

Photo: Cath Phillips

psst! don’t tell anyone this

The Indie gives Benjamin Barber a push & passes along his core message: things are fucked but when we say that we must be careful not to offend anybody, or actually catch their attention.

settling the world

Interesting look at Stand on Zanzibar at Torque Control. A book about its own present. My feeling in 1969 was that Brunner’s statement of the problem was a more effective appeal to people’s intelligence than any faked-up solution he could provide. But to electrify is never enough: sf so yearns to provide a cure for things & you have to forgive it that.


Landscape was the resource of my childhood. I love the light on the world, the look of things. I love any writer who has a sightline on that, even Kipling. To Yeats or Arthur Machen the light on the landscape was a promise of immanence, something more than the world; whereas to Robert Macfarlane the light on the landscape is enough. It doesn’t need to imply anything (although he talks of “gateways”). We were made to be in light and air. I get excited by other landscapes but I like Britain best. Seaside, moors, mountains, fields. It’s a strength to be able to stand for an hour, watch the light and shadow on the water, let the anger drain away, not be the author of something like Light.

the rime of the ancient imagista

“Today only bad actors can lead a nation, as Reagan and Blair showed. Poor Gordon Brown needs six months at Rada and a tryout at the Old Vic.” JG Ballard, quoted in James Campbell’s piece in the Guardian. But also, of himself: “Just because you’re right, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be viewed with great suspicion.”

“Seated before his reconstituted Delvaux,” Campbell concludes, “Ballard is at home with his paradoxes.”