the m john harrison blog

Month: March, 2012

a very weird feeling

Nick Coleman name-checks “the SF awkward squad” of the 70s in his memoir of a life in music journalism: “Thompson was much cleverer than me, but neither of us seemed to mind. What seemed important was that we both liked Harlan Ellison, M John Harrison, Michael Moorcock, LeGuin and the rest of the SF awkward squad.” It is a weird feeling to be on a list like that. But it is less weird than Coleman’s experience. Music was his life: he woke up one morning deaf. How do you encompass that ? What do you do with yourself next ? In addition, The Train in the Night is full of acute observations like this: “‘Make new’ was not the same thing at all as ‘make novel’. Make new meant ‘make real again.'” Some of us should have that stamped on our bank books in case we forget it in the stumbling run to become popular.


1994: draft of a paragraph for Signs of Life

Listen, I’m not here now. I’m free now. I’m driving slowly through wet city streets. It’s my favourite car. My clothes aren’t old. They aren’t new. They’re just right. The car stereo is playing Tom Waits. The lights of approaching cars are starring out on the windscreen. I am making only the required decisions. Brake lights flare ahead. Traffic lights change. Intersections appear & slowly move away, to the right or the left & always to the rear. In the shop lights I see comfort things, comfort goods: more cars, more stereos, more tapes & compact disks, more adverts for cars & computers & music. Nothing that can happen to me here is significant. I will reach into the glove compartment with a kind of absent irritation. I will be looking for something I have forgotten even as my hand touches it. It will be a cigarette, a paper tube of sweets. A book of matches (Ruby in the Dust, Islington). I will probably even light the cigarette, although I have not smoked for nearly twenty years. I will never leave the city however far I drive. Each pizza house will be succeeded by a Thai palace. Rocket Burger will precede Hip Bagels. Tom Waits will pass on to “Big Black Maria”, just loud enough to block out the engine noise but never loud enough to centre itself in my awareness. I can do that because I’m free now.

it’s a war

Wittgenstein: ‘We might say “every view has its charm”, but this would be wrong. What is true is that every view is significant for him who sees it so (but that does not mean “sees it as something other than it is”). And in this sense every view is equally significant.’ [Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough.]

Some places are easy to assign significance to. They give in to your first idea of them. Others are ready for you. They lie in ambush & while you’re trying to annexe the territory it’s annexing you. Long stretches of the East Sussex coast are like that. It would take months of stealthy occupation of Dungeness to find the way to break loose the qualities you want; longer to own & reassign them. It’s a war. For one thing–genius loci aside, if we can agree on that–local & quasi-local usage make a landscape. Each step you take has already been taken by someone else; each definition (& each way of making a definition) already belongs to someone else. & of course each sentence you produce is instantly in competition with every other piece of writing, filming or painting made along that coast.

the speed wave machine

Steven Shaviro, Post Continuity (via the Mumpsimus): “In post-continuity films, unlike classical ones, continuity rules are used opportunistically and occasionally, rather than structurally and pervasively. Narrative is not abandoned, but it is articulated in a space and time that are no longer classical. … We need to develop new ways of thinking about the formal strategies, as well as the semantic contents, of all these varieties of post-continuity films.”

Sumit Paul-Choudhury, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future: “Primer’s appeal lies in its uncompromising refusal to make things easy for its viewers, whose initial confidence that they know what’s going on gradually gives way to confusion and ultimately to hopeless perplexity. (In that, their experience mimics that of its protagonists.) The narrative, which  is episodic and staccato to begin with, gradually becomes more disjointed, leaving both actors and audience to piece together the course of events from the disordered glimpses they observe.” [My italics.]

Photo of the Speed Wave attraction, Flamingo Amusement Park, Hastings: copyright Cath Phillips.

making the mari

Fascinated by the Mari Lwyd, the traditional horse-skull figure which patrols at the edge of the Viriconium stories & as “the Shrander” represents death (among other things) in Light, Jefferson Brassfield decided, “I figured I’d understand her better if I made her myself and got acquainted.” I was struck by the calm practicality of this as much as by his photograph of her, so I asked him to describe the process. Here’s what he wrote–

Making Mari Lwyd

The most difficult part of making Mari was waiting to find the right skull on eBay.

I didn’t want one that was too broken or decayed or cracked or missing too many teeth. Neither did I want a bleached-white museum-quality specimen. A fine skull turned up after several weeks of watching and waiting; worn and greyed, a few teeth gone, those remaining browned and yellowed, evidence of dirt and detritus still in the nooks and crannies of the whole. I think it cost me around $80, but I don’t recall if that included shipping.

Once it was in my possession, I cleaned and scraped out the dirt and grass and dried tissue as best as I could with an awl, long tweezers, and a can of compressed air. Then with some Elmer’s wood glue, I filled in the gaps between the teeth and the bones so that they were all seated securely and wouldn’t rattle or fall out.

I’m not much of an engineer, but I drew up several ideas for how to connect the jaw to the skull, mount them both on a pole, and enable the jaw to hinge but be closed at rest. I wanted to come up with an elegant contraption that would have accomplished everything in a mechanical unity, but I had neither the materials nor the knowledge to see that through. Instead I came up with individual solutions for each problem that would not get in the way of one another.

Without my fantastical contraption, the jaw had to be affixed to the skull, and the skull had to be affixed to the pole.

Skull to pole was simple and easy: Bore a hole through the crown of the skull and out the bottom of the brain cage. Put a thick-gauge threaded bolt of about 18 inches in length (forgive my metric ignorance) through the holes with large rubber and metal washers on both top and bottom. Bore a hole into one end of a 5 foot long, inch-and-a-half diameter wooden dowel, and gently thread the bolt into the pole until it is good and tight. I generally have to tighten it a tad after I’ve mucked about with it, but it stays just fine. Simple to remove for ease of transportation or storage.

The jaw was tricky. I wanted it to be spring-loaded so that it would pull open with some resistance and clamp back shut when released. I drilled some holes into the skull behind the eye sockets and into the jaw near the natural hinge. I put eyelet screws into the holes, and then hooked a tight spring between them that would extend when the jaw opened. It wasn’t enough. The jaw is so long and heavy the springs were insufficient to counter the lever on them. I thought I’d try another pair of eyelets at the top wing of the jaw bone; the farthest point in opposition of the tip of the jaw, that would connect via more springs to more eyelets farther back along the skull. The first attempt to bore through the narrower part of the top of the jaw broke it. I was afraid I would have to get a new skull, but some epoxyish goo seems to be holding it all together well enough. Anyhow, so much for that second screw. A stronger spring between the eyelets already in place was another option, but the tension on the screws proved too great and it was starting to pull them out of the bone. I could have adjusted the eyelet positions to compensate, but at this point I was hesitant to do any more drilling.

Not wanting to further damage her, I submitted to a less aesthetically pleasing, but effective solution: I screwed an eyelet inside the front of the jaw, another in the bottom of the skull in the roof of her mouth, another at the back of the roof of her mouth. Tied twine to the jaw eyelet, ran it through the eyes of the others, tied off the far end to a metal ring for a bit of a pulley. Screwed a hook into the side of the pole she’s mounted on at such a level that when the twine & ring is hooked onto it, the jaw is held mostly shut, with a bit of help from the springs (though only a bit). Unhook the ring, pull tight and release, and her jaw clacks open and shut satisfactorily.

Additionally, I tied twine over the skull between opposing pairs of spring eyelets, both front and back. If the jaw pulley-twine breaks as it eventually must from the constant tension it is under, these other twine bridges will keep the jaw from potentially ripping one of the spring eyelets out and falling off entirely.


Not the elements-be-damned, nigh-invisible, indestructible mechanism I had hoped for, but it’ll do.

bought an old braided leather belt and screwed it into the pole for a shoulder strap since she’s so heavy. I screwed a couple sticks of knotty wood perpendicular together and wedged one end into the spinal hole at the back of the skull to give her shroud some more structure to hang back on and disguise the shape of her custodian underneath.

Her decorations are simple: Ribbon from the local craft store, matching tassels, brassy metal rings of various sizes, belt buckles, old scissors, bells and a bit of chain to festoon her with. As much from my grandfather’s garage and secondhand shops as I could find, the rest from the craft store. An old metal starburst screwed into her brow gives the appearance of clamping down most of the ribbons which are actually affixed to tabs of velcro. As before, easy to take apart if needed. The eyes are a pair of plastic refrigerator magnets that look like halved Christmas bulbs. They’re glued into the sockets with wood glue. Small red gems from the craft store (bedazzle!!!) are glued variously on the eyes for a glinty faceted appearance. The shroud is a sheet velcroed to the crown of the skull behind the metal starburst and tacked to the piece of wood behind the skull. I ran some wire through the seam of the shroud to make a loop beneath the skull that will keep its shape and allow her bearer to see forward. Some white mesh hung inside that to obscure her bearer from those without.

And that’s about it.

I’d be happier with a hardier mechanism and some older, sturdier material for the ribbons and I want to get a skeleton key or two and some more antique scissors to hang from her, but overall I am quite pleased with the result. She’s quite lovely and what I set out to make.

Jefferson O.S. Brassfield

Creative Commons License
Making Mari Lwyd by Jefferson Brassfield is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

ritual objects of the south coast

on the stade

10am, heat resonates from the deteriorating sandstone cliffs. Everything is already suspended in light. Water into haze. Haze into sky. Sky into light. All one preservative substance. Crowds of schoolchildren scour the beach like gulls, restless, permanent, unassuaged, shouting and grunting, throwing shingle at one another for something to do. There’s a faint smell. Fish, salt, perfume, fried food: for a moment it seems like a language, with a shifting, impermanent sytax: but when you listen it has nothing to say, & all that counts–again!–is to be here. You are the only description of what there is. The only language here is the use you make of these events.

notebook entry 2012

notebook entry 2009

Lee Smolin: The Trouble with Physics, p44: a description of non-background-dependent descriptions. “We no longer have fields moving in a fixed-background geometry. We have a bunch of fields all interacting with one another, all dynamical, all influencing one another…”

Personality generated the same way, as a product of all the interacting systems of a body. Even the context, which seems like a fixed frame, is a process & part of the process. Personality a constantly shifting product of these processes & interactions. Every process is responding to every other one via “rules of engagement” that only apply to that type of transaction. No station-master is needed—or could be developed—to oversee the process. When was the last time you gave an instruction to your liver ? A liver cell knows nothing but how to be a liver cell; its “knowledge” of being a liver cell consists in operating. It never gets instructions from above, from a unifying regulator. It reacts to inputs in ways determined by its own rules. “You” is the second-by-second product of a billion decisions taken second-by-second by thousands of totally autonomous systems. “You” stacks up; it accretes, or agglomerates–but it also falls down and changes and shifts evanescently moment by moment. “You” is a by-product, an artefact of all those processes. You don’t like to be told that. It’s offensive. But once you understand it you understand the evanescence and undependability of a conscious personality.

in the garden

The robins don’t want the goldfinches on the niger seed dispenser–too close to their nest. A pair of blackbirds, prospecting the thick ivy further along that wall, don’t want them either. The goldfinches enact “puzzled”, “good-natured” & “unprepared to squabble”. They slope off: the dispenser is almost empty anyway. I wonder how the robins, who lost a brood to a squirrel last year, will cope with their own aggression if the blackbirds actually move in. Meanwhile, nearer the back door, all the signs of Spring: some lengths of plastic draught-excluder discarded when Terry from Bristol put in the new back door; the rear wheel from a 1993 Marin Palisades Trail, which C was using to keep squirrels out of her tulip bulbs over the winter; a litter box discarded by the cat as too small. But it’s only when I notice the two bald scrubbing brushes in the corner by the fall pipe that I realise the year is waking up at last.