the m john harrison blog

Month: February, 2010

the magic of flight

People pack the long aisle of the plane looking hauntedly for seat numbers. Club class is full of very old Americans, smiling with satisfaction as the losers shuffle past towards sub-steerage.

“I’m Ronald Ramsay, your captain for today. We will be flying north first, then turning left and taking up a position in the middle of the North Sea.”

“I’m not sure I want to take up a position in the middle of the North Sea,” says someone. “Not in an aeroplane.”

The 737 makes a noise like a tumble dryer, then suddenly goes backwards. Soon it has set off at a brisk jog into a tangle of well-kept little runways, alongside which you expect to see flowers in brightly-painted tubs, lock-gates and barge-keepers in blue shirts. Nothing of the kind: parked aircraft; a motorway; some raw earth; a Volkswagon van travelling fast between a chainlink fence and some corrugated sheds.

living the fantasy

A woman, dressed in a pastiche of Australian farming wear apparently designed by Studio Ghibli, hurries down Grove Road carrying a huge bunch of lilies in the rain. You see this all the time in Barnes. People don’t dress: they dress up as. You feel a great pathos, a complex emotional upwelling in which tenderness conflicts with disbelief, & don’t really know where to lodge it. It would be easier, you suspect, if you were Will Self.

it’s a crime

So I watch a little American Hot Rod. I can take it or leave it, I’m not dependent. Not as dependent as I am on Masterchef, anyway. The fact is I’m in love with Michel Roux. “Your spinach puree is coming to me with faint flavours of stripped oak floorboards, Michael. But otherwise quite nice. I would serve this food in my restaurant.” Reading: Ali Smith, Like. Re-reading: Rosamond Lehmann, The Echoing Grove. Looking forward to watching: No Country For Old Men. (I know, I know.) Still writing: Anna Kearney, as was.

lost worlds

In the 1970s, when I began to read HE Bates, my memories of the town of my birth, Rugby in Warwickshire, became fatally enslaved to Bates’s fictional Evensford. How to free them, except with care & hard work, image by image ? They were far too similar. Black sticks of reeds where the towpath has collapsed into the canal. A dead cat in a gutter in melting snow. The movements of people through streetlight, projected faintly on to the ceilings and upper walls of a bedroom; their laughter. The bang & squeal of trains coupling and decoupling in the night. A constant sense of the dry cold winds of the early part of the year, on building sites, on the corners of the streets down by the railway, under bridges, across pond ice, over the vast empty expanse of the cattle market with its moveable metal dividers. How do you begin to retrieve a landscape you spent so much of your life forgetting ? Not by using satellite maps, that’s for sure. All they record is its absence. To separate Evensford & Rugby, I need a psychic splitter, & it is uncertainty. Evensford is a place certain of its feelings–certain anyway that feelings, whatever turmoil they create, are the point; that even coldness and despair are part of human warmth & hope; that human mess is nothing less than human. I can read that out of the pervasive combination of love & perspective Bates imparts to every story. But everything I felt–everything that was communicated to me–in the very similar social & geographical spaces of postwar Warwickshire was simultaneously clouded and sharpened by anxiety, cancered-up with stealthy growths of alienation.

watch this now!

If you’re here now, 8.10pm, go away! Go to BBC2 & watch Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places of Essex! It’s brilliant!

against the grain

Thirteen or fourteen years old & lost in February. Full of energy but never knew what to do. Go to the canal, go down the fields, always looking for some way of saying the thing you don’t know what it is, pulled & pushed everywhere by the dry cold wind. Distraught with the beauty of frozen stuff, also thin dust chipped with hail. Towpaths, cigarette smoke, a blonde aunt, hundreds of contemporary poems ripped whole from the school library, a bleached canvas curtain across an outside door. How do you know what to say before you know how to say it ? Why does everyone who says anything say it better than you ?

light & enchantment

Abandoned answer to an interview question:

I mean, clearly, immanence has always had huge issues for me. From the early 80s everything addresses it. Light could be described almost entirely as being a kind of back & forth reveling in those issues. But enchantment has to have a secularity, a materiality. It doesn’t inform or inhabit the world: in some way it is the world. It’s algorithm & structure, a kind of physics, an expression of the constantly folding & acting rule-like structures that make everything moment to moment.

I usually give up on articulating this–except intuitively, via the discpline I know, which is “fantastic” fiction–out of embarrassment: I reel back from contemporary philosophy (increasingly, in fact, from all philosophy) with the feeling that it is too clever for me. My admiration has become doglike, & that’s not really good enough, is it ?

strange bedfellows, r/z

The final tour round my bookshelves, which are now less extensive than many a TBR pile–

Mary Renault
Paul Reps
Joanna Richardson
Matt Ridley
Rainer Maria Rilke
Robert Roberts
Henry Rollins
Philip Roth
Jean Rhys
Robert Sabbag
Siegfried Sassoon
Bruno Schulz
Alice Sebold
Will Self
Joe Simpson
Ali Smith
Martin Cruz Smith
Thorne Smith
Stanley Spencer
Stephen Spender
Robert Louis Stevenson
George Steiner
Robert Stone
Elizabeth Taylor
Giuliana Tedeschi
DM Thomas
Dylan Thomas
David Thompson
Adam Thorpe
Colin Thubron
Michel Tournier
Joanna Trollope
John Updike
Stephen Venables
EH Visiak
MM Waldrop
Alan Wall
Benjamin Walker
Alan Warner
Paul Watkins
Sydney Wignall
Charles Williams
Tim Winton
Tom Wolfe
Jack Womack
Daniel Woodrell
Antony Woodward
Virginia Woolf
TM Wright
Simon Yates
Thomas de Zengotita

This is what you get when you pursue an idle notion. Still, at least I didn’t think it was a good idea for a trilogy. Next time I trim the shelves I’ll be getting rid of everything, except maybe RLS.


The light has a warmer quality, which has brought out the biscuit colours of the gable ends along Grove Road. For days the street has been full of children on bicycles taking their proficiency test. Tucked into yellow safety wear & pink helmets, they cycle back & forth with attentive expressions & a careful lack of elan. Points are awarded for the proper use of the hand signal, but this morning I can’t seem to get worked up about that. Down towards the river the street trees are shocking green again, glowing & roaring as they suck in the sunlight to re-emit it at outlandish, artificial-looking wavelengths. You would not eat that colour if it came as a fast food, although it might win you over if they baked it on to the fat alloy tubes of a new bike. Or you might just be curious enough to Google for it with some heartbreaking search string like “high speed jets of matter”. Whatever it is, nature has no right to it except at the extreme end of things where stuff only just hangs together. & this is on a tree, in a street near you! It comes in a bad colour, but it’s life. There’s no life at all on my balcony, only induviae: pots of rotten brown sticks folded over & streaked with black; the strange, silvery, papery transparencies of the remains of flowers. I go out & think about pulling some of this stuff up, but end up staring into the street at the lines of cyclists. When they spot the kiddies in their yellow safety wear, even the white van drivers slow down. Curious, amiable, collapsed expressions come on their faces, as if they are trying to remember how to be human.

tim @ gasworks, 05.02/28.03.10

Gasworks presents the first solo exhibition in a London public gallery by Tim Etchells, which brings together two works previously unseen in the UK.

“… Produced for Manifesta 7, in Italy, Art Flavours sees Etchells organising a meeting between the Italian critic and curator Roberto Pinto and the ice-cream maker Osvaldo Castellari. Pinto was entrusted with summarising art historical practice through four main categories: The Body, Memory, Spectacle and The Archive. Castellari’s role was to translate the concepts into four ice-cream flavours. The video shows the conversation between the two men in which the critic/curator attempts to convey the art historical themes to the ice-cream master, who for his own part grows more and more sceptical, anxious and daunted by the task ahead of him.

“As Etchells comments: ‘Staging an encounter between popular confectionery and art practice, Art Flavours plays with the possibility (and impossibility) of translating the academic/specialised language of the art world into new edibles for the public.'”