the m john harrison blog

Month: January, 2010

i’d rather talk to mice

It sums up the crassness of political discourse over the last few years that someone arrived here yesterday by asking a search engine “the difference between misanthropic and pessimistic”. The pets.

burn other people’s stuff

A week of not-unmixed success. People are asking me to write some weird things lately. Rooting around behind the clothes-rack for something I could think about, I found balls of dust, abandoned award certificates, lost shoes made out of a particularly pre-scuffed & greasy kind of suede, bought in Valencia, 2004. There’s a paper Chinese kite still in its box & I wonder briefly if it can be made to fly. Chris Ofili: “The studio is a laboratory, not a factory… An exhibition is the result of your experiments, but the process is never-ending. So an exhibition is not a conclusion.” Neither is a novel. I prefer the way artists & performers describe their practice to the way writers describe theirs. I prefer rehearsals to product. I like studies for things. (I don’t mean a draft; that I shouldn’t be taken to mean a draft is precisely what I’m trying to get over when I say I prefer the way artists & performers describe their practice…) Ofili again: “I’m not after a type of refinement of your life with a view to writing your own obituary… summing up as early as possible so people get it and they can just slap you on the back every time they see you.” He’s not actually talking about obituaries, is he ? I want to get that clear at the outset, too. Watched TV every day this week like you do. As Big Freeze Britain gave way–with all the savage unpredictability of the outside–to Big Thaw Britain, devastated people were having to wade across roads where, only the day before, black ice had forced them to crawl. Meanwhile, the 24 Hour News described images from Port au Prince as “traumatising”. To be on the safe side I looked away. I can’t afford to spend the next month or two attended by flashbacks, sleeplessness, sudden inexplicable phobias, mysterious bouts of Tourette’s. Haitians, though (in a sense luckily) too preoccupied to notice it, are being made to suffer this additional indignity: as the collapse of a built environment that was really rather meagre in the first place is made to resonate with the porridgy attitudinalising of a Survivors script, the new threat to them is the asphyxiation of their plight in a slurry of BBC rhetoric. You can rate a week by the number of times you lost your temper & gave up on the whole idea of language. But is a high number bad or good ? Paul McCauley found a perfect illustration of the erosion & commodification of the meta-commons. Here, breathing–an activity available to everyone, something you thought you could just do–is reconceptualised & sold back to the breather. Religions, of course, have been doing this for thousands of years–possibly even since, to deploy a BBCism, the very dawn of time. Each time a successful reconceptualisation takes place, everyone involved gets a slice of the pie, whether that’s actual money or some other even more satisfying kind of payback–a bigger department to run, better funding, localised celebrity, status satisfaction, ego-payback, whatever. Back behind the clothes rack I have a look at two paintings, the tops of their frames soft with dust. Nice. My down jacket, I see, could do with a clean. This reminds me that I still have, in some plywood storage cubicle somewhere, a very good three-season sleeping bag I bought in 1971, when it cost all of £20. I imagine it as full of a fibrous grey dust now, impregnated with old bird viruses & emphysema, which started out as goosedown. & Julian Richards sent these. But I don’t think that was this week. Pearlant: what a weird book that’s going to be. Looking at Herschel porn, I suddenly write a note about Anna’s sexuality at 60, how it’s a site of conflict with her grown up daughter.

hunting the wren

12 o’ clock the snow stops & a wren comes out to pick about among the pale green monbretia shoots & new snowdrops along the base of next door’s wall, nipping & bobbing, posing tail-up like the wren on the old farthing. What could you emboss on a farthing to indicate it was the smallest unit of currency, now the wren has lost its symbolic function ? For those younger people who’ve never seen a wren, it’s quite a small grey-furred mammal the elongated rear legs of which give it an energetic, hopping gait. It has a striking coloured breast often described as “pink” or “roseate”, but in fact much closer to violet. The male is slightly smaller than the female, more colourful & less active. Wrens are quite solitary, but breed with enthusiasm in suburban gardens in late March & early April, rearing ten to fifteen “kits” in a litter. Predators include the magpie, or “English Parrot”. In the historical times it was a Boxing Day custom to hunt wrens & crucify them on small sticks.

burn your stuff

Brian Duffy nails it in an interview with the Guardian

With all this going on, why did he stick with photography? “I loved it,” he says. “But it was only enjoyable because it was mysterious. The revelation [about why a picture worked] came after – when I’d go, ‘Christ, that’s interesting!'” (The Guardian’s square brackets.)

Later, he burned all his stuff. Burning your stuff is always a comedy. I had The Committed Men in a green metal wastebin & the lighter fuel out when a–now long-vanished & for all I know dead–friend persuaded me to give it to her instead. “Do what you like with it, just remember I never want to see the fucker again,” I warned her. Two years later, around 1969, on the phone, “You know that manuscript I lent you… ?”


Adrian Searle seems to be trying a bit hard to catch the importance of Eggleston’s “forgotten corners and empty spaces”, but this will do: “he tunes your eyes and makes you notice things”.

i’m not buying

Today’s classic example of how to grip the outside with a rhetoric that deftly turns it into an extension of the inside. But the outside is already there; it is not a “free gym”. The concept of an outside is the last of the commons; a bit more of it is enclosed every time someone writes an article like this. I can’t say how unpleasant it feels to be encouraged to exploit the outside as an inside–to be given permission to exploit it that way–by someone called Lucy; or by someone who sells me back the commons as my membership of their Green Gym. (Or at present, of course, White Gym: expect valuable lifestyle insights on that from a Lucy or two if the current media end of the world, Big Freeze Britain 2010, lasts for another whole week.)

Fascinated by: the responses to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die, which indicate that people all over are waking up to the wankfest they have enjoyed for the last 30 years. Listening to: The Books, courtesy Deb & Tim. Eagerly anticipating: the arrival of The Stone Tape from LoveFilm (I want to watch it again, but not at £50 for a secondhand DVD). Trying to avoid finishing: Notes from Walnut Tree Farm. Deakin has joined the list of authors good enough to ration. I’ve got sufficient unread Nemirovsky to last a couple of years. A powerful list to make would be of writers you wish you’d measured out across your life instead of binge-reading their entire oeuvre in three weeks when you were twenty seven. If I’d been a bit more abstemious with HE Bates he would easily have seen me through.

mexican death tv

My writing desk is a long, solid structure made of two thuggy planks– stained, knocked about, but having in places of high wear (the mousing area, for instance) a buttery patina–supported on a timber frame. It runs under the window for nearly eight feet, but I tuck myself into one end of that as if embarrassed or overpowered by such an executive allocation of space. It was originally a photographer’s bench, I think; equally, you could rebuild an engine on it if anyone did that anymore. It’s not mine, it was here when I arrived in 1998, but it’s the most satisfying desk I’ve ever had. My ideal is to keep it bare of everything but the engine of the Mac. No pens, paper, books, nothing to remind me of what I do for a living except the screen, the writing space itself; above all, no clutter. But I do not fool myself that this aesthetic is actually available. Stuff is all over, all the things mentioned plus: wires, dust, iPods, earbuds, hard drives, CDs, souvenirs including Mexican Death TV, two elephants, brass lizard, wire lizard, big brass tray of beach pebbles pine cones shells etc, a Thai fish, glass pigs & an ash tray with horses on it nearly 40 years old. I have some good photographs of the bench, & I would put one up here but they also feature S’s daughters, who were doing some tidying up at the time, & I would rather get everyone’s permission first. This morning I’m sitting here on an Ikea swivel chair ten years old–called a Ronni or a Bobsu or a Cummi or something–with the cloth peeled away to reveal rotting foam. I am wearing a Rab double-pile jacket over a merino wool base-layer, & my red Buff in its beanie mode. It’s cold. An extra roof has appeared in the street, a snow-covered Luton van leaning up against a tree like a container abandoned in the corner of a field. No one can park sensibly in West London, home of double-parking for an hour in a street already lined on both sides with 4x4s, your driver-door open & engine running while you chat in the porch of a nice little workingman’s cottage, your honking voices penetrating all the way to Hammersmith & beyond causing shivers of rage & terror in the poor people who don’t know how to push for the things they want or even look after themselves properly.

i like snow

It’s been trying to snow all day, an effort which intensified suddenly about three minutes ago. Bigger flakes fall thick & slow. It has the feel of a phase-change. Everything goes quieter. The air seems fractionally darker. Spaces gain depth. The houses over the road recede but become somehow more solid, more delineated. The light complicates & recomplicates itself, reflecting from the surfaces of every falling flake. Nothing will be the same after this. I won’t pretend not to be elated. It’s the most tranquil, the most mystical time; the most transient however long it lasts. Snow falling at the end of the short winter afternoon. A bird, its grey silhouette vague & busy, is making heavy weather of it fifty or sixty feet up, tail flared, wings fluttering, slow progress. I can’t know how that feels, but if this fall continues I’ll wait for dark, put my Innov8s on, pick up my head-torch & go running in the woods. By then, they’ll be woods, not just a few acres of dissected scrub in an upscale suburb. They’ll be endless. The best snow I ever saw from a window was at Ferihegy airport, Budapest, in February 1991. The best snow I was ever in fell during a long winter when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. I remember struggling four miles along unlit Warwickshire lanes under very bright stars, between fluted tongues, volutes and gargoyles of snow where the wind forced spindrift through the gaps in the hedges. Some of these structures had begun to shift like dunes, or elongate themselves across the verges and into the lane. I was elated, moment by moment, very aware of myself as being alive in this landscape. My toes and fingers were numb. My breath was in front of me.

mieville on crime

China being brilliant about the detective story–

…detective novels are not novels of detection, still less of revelation, still less of solution. Those are all necessary, but not only are they insufficient, but they are in certain ways regrettable. These are novels of potentiality. Quantum narratives. Their power isn’t in their final acts, but in the profusion of superpositions before them, the could-bes, what-ifs and never-knows. Until that final chapter, each of those is as real and true as all the others, jostling realities all dreamed up by the crime, none trapped in vulgar facticity. That’s why the most important sentence in a murder mystery isn’t the one starting ‘The murderer is…’ – which no matter how necessary and fabulously executed is an act of unspeakable narrative winnowing – but is the snarled expostulation halfway through: ‘Everyone’s a suspect.’ Quite. When all those suspects become one certainty, it’s a collapse, and a let-down. How can it not be? We’ve been banished from an Eden of oscillation.

[Via Glass Hombre. Find the whole piece at Whatever. Oh, & he blogs, here. Or maybe he doesn’t.]

the last good use of fantasy

A ring-necked parakeet came and sat in one of the street-trees for a few minutes, while some reluctant flakes of snow fell around it. Occasionally it pecked at the branch by its feet; then it flew off, trailing its elegant tail feathers, its head & body making a shape like a fist on a thin wrist. No one notices them any more, except perhaps when they turn up at a garden feeder; like foxes, they’re not just physically established in London, they’re psychologically established. I must be the last person in the city who still finds their cry disjunctive & weird. Every time I hear it I think of Ballard’s “Dream Cargoes”; in fact, really, I just think of Ballard, & how his stories were the only way of importing the exotic into ordinary life in the Midlands in 1963. Now the exotic has so interpenetrated the ordinary that it no longer exists unless you’re prepared to farm your own naive intensity of experience & project it firmly on to the world.