the m john harrison blog

Month: November, 2011

empty space again

Light & Nova Swing were about going inside something–maybe yourself–& not coming out again. Empty Space seems to be about going inside then coming back so changed you might as well have been (& indeed might well have been) something else all along. Several kinds of “going inside” are depicted. In some cases going inside is seen as a defeat, retreat or sudden loss of a handhold on the world; in others a transformational acceptance of weirdness, the existential value of which can’t be experienced or measured by the observer.


endless connect

So SC comes over from the States & after we’ve caught up a bit I say, I wonder if the Francis Baines you knew, & I never met, the baroque musician, composer, the man who used a glass door turned on its side to build the window at the end of the ground floor here, could have also been an occasional member of the Albion Dance Band, because here’s his name, I found it in Wikipedia’s list of musicians who played in that band from the start ? It seems unlikely to me, I go on, but surely stranger things have happened ? Then I Google that a Francis Baines is credited as playing the hurdy gurdy for ADB as late as 1984, & SC says with a matter of fact shrug, “Hurdy gurdy ? That’ll be Francis then. Completely.” So it’s him! & the two Francis Baineses are one & the same: the man who made the eccentric house I live in, & made so much music here, & caused even more music to be made here by SC & many others, also played in the Albion Dance Band & maybe knew Lal Waterson or Martin Carthy. I don’t know where to put myself for delight at this, & skip about a lot, & even though it doesn’t have Francis Baines on it, play SC a live version of “Merry Sherwood Rangers” (ignore the visual & give it a bit of time to warm up), because I don’t in fact own many ADB tracks at the moment & it’s all I can find. The hurdy gurdy is one of the incomparably weird instruments. It is at least as weird as the crumhorn or weirder. I can’t believe this house once echoed to that sound; or, in fact, I can. If Viriconium Fish Head Morris ever got danced, it would be danced to hurdy gurdy, two violins & tuba. Also an unnamed instrument drawn by Ian Miller.


“I was using the map, in fact, not to find my way but to get lost; to lose myself in the landscape.” Roger Deakin, Waterlog.

“No one, nowadays, should stick rigidly to what he or she ‘can’ do. Strength lies in improvisation. The blows that count are all landed with the left.” Walter Benjamin, One Way Street.

map boy writes on his handkerchief

The pollluted sublime. Pockets of the sublime. The sublime as haunting. The sublime as antechamber. The powerless or disconnected sublime. The sublime immanent in its opposite (gnostic sublime). Beatification & the anti-sublime: Visions of Johanna. The absent or absurd sublime. The ironic counter-sublime. The failed sublime. The lost or misplaced sublime. Jouissance & the carnal sublime. The sublime of the commodified, or spectacular sublime. Intellectual branding & the cosmological sublime. The sublime will eat itself. Lists of unsublime objects presented as being in some overall way sublime (the rhetorical sublime). The toon sublime. Light slowly peels the surface of things. The Indian Ocean.

Sommer, Somerfield, Deakin

John Timberlake recommended Frederick Sommer’s photography & now I’m obsessed by this chicken. Some of John’s own work can be seen here.

Roger Deakin writes on page four of Waterlog (1999):

    “Most of us live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something about this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking and cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities.”

Within a decade, wholly driven by the success of Waterlog, the media cult of “wild swimming” had taken off & was well into the process of commodification & interpretation. Significant points along Deakin’s journey–easily-available pools, beaches & rivers–were becoming stations of the wild swimming cross. You could buy a wild swimming holiday, a score of wild swimming guides & DVDs. Stratification of ambition had set in: some wild swims were clearly wilder than others. Soon you could buy a logbook in which to record your wild swimming ticks. Waterlog abounds in so many sad ironies of this kind I’m not sure I can re-read it. (At date of first publication, he was already wrong about walking & cycling, which had become part of the signposted, packaged & commodified outdoors–the indoor outdoors–long before.)

Finally today, a very short story in the New Weird mode, from an observation of Claire Marshall’s: “It seems darker than other supermarkets.”

quickening & immanence on the Kid Heartbreak trail

M1, Leicestershire & Warwickshire. Mist thickening out of the Charnwood copses. Closer to, you can feel the water vapour in the air, but it’s invisible except as a guess until it polarises some BMW’s halogen light & startles briefly with little elusive blue wisps & flickers. So quick & faint you can never be sure they’re real. I was born near here, but I never saw anything like that before. I try to explain to C how the smaller fields used to fill up with white mist like industrial separation tanks, or how the late afternoon sun in November turned the air pinky gold–not the sky, the air itself–in moments of kitsch heartbreak from the thirty-years-yet-unwritten The Course of the Heart. There’s a constant, constantly-renewed sense of immanence in those landscapes. In the 1950s they had one sort of magic; now, just when you’d think all magic had evaporated, they discover another.

remembrance of things past

Why does this novel, as presented, seem so accurate to its times, while this one seems so dated ? Is it just because we know we’re not post-Fukuyama any more, or post-Dotcom, or even post-9/11 ? That we’re beginning to accept at last the condition of being post-2007 ? Or is it simply that we no longer see a gadget as the future (or the future as a gadget), something that separates us irredeemably from the “past” ? How quaint it is now to think we felt post-human, empowered, as technologically advanced as a polaroid picture or a Walkman in the late 1970s. Another vanished future.

what is the exact nature of the catastrophe ?

Where would you look if you didn’t want to write a classic post-industrial disaster? Obviously ask the question above. But even that would have to be a new question, framed out of the understanding that, as far as Cassandra is concerned, the disaster is that which has always already happened. What sort of disaster are we in? What sort of metaphors does it cause us to seek? (Are we able to seek anything but the appropriate metaphors? Are we already on rails with this?) Wyndham voiced so clearly the slow disaster of the English middle classes in the across-the-war period, from the invention of the BBC to the reinvention of the bureaucracy, the loss of India to the invention of the hydrogen bomb. Who’s doing that for our sad bankers? What does their disaster–not yet risen to consciousness but still, surely, fully known to them–feel like? Is it possible to describe a post-economic melancholy? What would be the landscape indices of that? Of the collapse of the corporate management class which has already begun to happen but which will be visible to them only in hindsight? What are the false catastrophic indices, which must be lying about in numbers like a kind of dereliction themselves? — remains of old disasters much the same as the remains of old futures, which we might greet by saying, Bored with that, bored with that, that won’t do it? If The Day of the Triffids was, at base, a book about John Wyndham’s extraordinary act of self-reinvention–the almost-blinded man who wakes one morning to find he can see & everyone else can’t, the utter wet dream of the sci-fi Cassandra–& if he was the perfect candidate for the job–whose self-reinvention can we expect here? I’m ready with the laurel wreath.

kitchen sink gothic

John Coulthart on reading Robert Aickman: “like finding the quotidian Britishness of Alan Bennett darkening into the inexplicable nightmares of David Lynch.” I often return to BBC4’s The Golden Age of Canals, which features Aickman as a broody, nerdy TE Lawrence of the waterways, for its footage of decaying tunnel entrances, drained locks & Kitchen Sink Gothic clutter embedded in wet mud. I watch with the sound turned off. “Down the canal” wasn’t just a destination of my childhood, it was a state of mind. It was at an oblique angle to everywhere else. It ran at the back of things. It was one of the places where everything broken ended up; where you could see the future.

cold case, 1980s

Phony music, cheap neon, streets that reek of bad money. Wide open suburbs solved like labyrinths, hands that make a big gun look small. All those burned down rooms & lists of suspects. Acts you might commit yourself, after a late night call. Someone is luring girls into the curve of the street, but before you can earn a blind dime you have to find out what’s behind her door. This detective starts in the centre of the maze. Crimes make their way through to him, uncover his heart at the heart of it.