the m john harrison blog

Month: May, 2012

drowning the clock

Every other night between midnight & three, I take my hard drives to the river. I turn right out of the house, then immediately right again, past magnolia, past wisteria. Barnes is empty. Maybe there are a few high clouds. A bit of moon the texture of fish skin. Maybe it’s snowing on a raw wind. Maybe the wind is blowing up from the river along Cleveland Gardens; maybe down towards it. Maybe it’s an August night, soft warm air more like Valencia than London. Anyway, walking is easy. It’s like a kind of floating, at least until the river front, the station, the dark brick heel of the bridge. There’s always a little urgency then. The situation’s not unpleasant, but it’s no longer a trance. Every other night, in the centre of Barnes bridge, facing downstream along Corney Reach to Chiswick Eyot, I take the hard drives out of my pocket & line them up carefully on the parapet. Sometimes I push them over with one finger; sometimes I throw them out over the water suddenly & with the most violent body language. Whatever. It’s essential they’re still intact. It’s essential they enter the river undamaged; that they’re carried along by a falling tide; that they sink slowly; that they become over many years eroded, corroded, buried in the deepest parts of the channel. It’s essential they never be found. Essential, too, that the data remains for as long as it can; but also that it can be understood from this moment as dissolving, or as being etched away, liberated from the prison of its encodement. Whatever it was before it passed from my life into words, becoming bound, I imagine it now etched & dissolved away forever, leaving behind, in ten years or two hundred, only some unreadable, cakey, wafery, fossil combination of rust & mud. As soon as I have imagined that, I’m released to make my way home. It’s four minutes on a nice night.

urban vertical 1991

Orange overalls daubed with sealants hang from a loose cable at the back of the power-tool room. From there you go up in a lift like a ribbed steel coffin smelling faintly of disinfectant. Roof access: pull-down steel ladder, counterweighted trap door. The drop is set up from ring bolts placed at regular intervals along the flat roof, the load spread over two or three bolts with clove-hitches. These bolts were part of a suspension-system for window cleaning cradles, unused because it didn’t get the approval of the insurance companies. Lightning conductors: a flat copper strip runs all the way round the parapet; more conventional rods are placed at the corners. When a storm is approaching, these begin to vibrate palpably. Because the ropes run across the copper strip, this is a good time to get off the drop for a bit. An unimpeachable tranquillity overtakes you once you’re over the parapet of the building. Nothing can harm you now. The wind hits you like a wall, then dies away & there you are, hanging above the trees, cars, old men walking between the blocks, a bull terrier fighting with a broom, women pushing babies in prams, cars like toys–the whole estate laid out below you like the architect’s model it once was. The ropes trail away. Freedom. Freedom from everything. A man unloading something from a van glances up briefly in surprise. Trees which look like coral in the sun. You hang there relaxing after the tension of getting over the parapet. Balconies: kitchen chairs, mops, rubbish in black bags, crates of empty bottles. One of the balconies flooded with two inches of rainwater. As you go down, the wind picks up 90 feet of trail rope, blows it round the corner of the block, where it tangles round a satellite dish. The same gust knocks you ten feet to one side & off balance so that you have to hook one foot under a balcony rail at about the level of your chest to anchor & reorient yourself. You sit patiently twitching a loop of rope until it’s disentangled & you can drop again. Underwear dances suddenly above you over the balcony. A window opens. A hand appears, to throw out dust or crumbs. You can’t see who is attached to it.  You look out over the man-made lake, a kind of Brutalist reservoir now terminally polluted by a sewer-burst. It used to support all sorts of activities, even windsurfing. Now  four or five men set out across it very slowly in a small boat–huddled, cold-looking, perhaps collecting samples of the polluted water. The wind takes all the vigour out of them.

heart sounds & bruits

With its low ceiling, panelled walls and red velvet sofa, the lounge at Dunford Bridge was like the lounge of some comfortable country hotel. It was full of indoor plants which Pam had planted in brass jugs, casseroles, bits of terra cotta balanced on tall awkward wooden stands, even a coal scuttle made of some orange-blonde wood– “Anything,” Lucas pretended to complain, “but proper pots.” Every evening Pam’s footsteps would go tap-tapping restlessly across the polished wood-block floor, as, increasingly nervous, she looked for something to do. She rustled the newspapers and magazines they kept in a wicker basket by the fireplace; went from picture to picture on the wall–a head in pencil, turned at an odd angle away from the artist; a still life with two lutes more real than the room; a bridge. In the end she would flick the ash off her cigarette and sit down with a copy of The Swan in the Evening or A View of the Harbour, each of which she had read half a dozen times before.

She could not put away a feeling of dread, even with the doors closed, a life settled.

“Was that a noise in the garden ?”

And she was up again, tap-tapping in and out of the shadows among the bulky old furniture she had chosen at some auction in Halifax.

“It’s the cat,” Lucas would tell her.

“I must have a cat!” she had said when they were married.

But she showed no interest in the kittens her neighbours  offered, or anything Lucas could find in a Manchester pet shop, and in the end adopted an old, blind-looking tom; brindled and slow. In the summer evenings this animal would move thoughtfully round the garden, marking each station of its reduced territory with a copious greenish spray. Suddenly it  became bored and jumped in through the open French window. All evening it weaved about in the open spaces of the wood-block as if it were pushing its way through a thicket of long entangled grass. It smelled strongly, and its ears were full of mites. Pam put down her book. In a flash the old cat had jumped lightly on to her lap!

“Do you think he’s in pain ?” she would ask Lucas.

“He’s not in pain. He only wants attention.”

“Because I couldn’t bear that.”

From The Course of the Heart, 1991

mexico 2009

I’ve lost the notes for these, but the second one down shows Chris N. Brown & Chris Priest, in a room; the fourth shows CP scoping it out in DF; & the last two were taken by Cath Phillips.

trying not to hide

There is no direct means of perceiving the real. Science can’t help. The whole of knowledge is like a deep layer of insulation between the individual & the real. No purposeful definition seems possible, only a forced engagement appalling & ecstatic by turns, a tense Lovecraftian psychodrama in which things are simply not what they seem & not very far down beneath it all everything is more chaotic, more undermining of the human construction of the world, than it’s possible to imagine. This kind of fiction is always an attempt to ambush the real, surprise it in the act of being what it actually is, while the real returns the favour & manifests as an intrusion. A thing on a stick. A network of veins seen in a wrong light. A condition of the vacuum. But the more clearly horrific the episode, the more it interposes itself between us & the very thing we’re trying not to hide.

they used to be lawns

Aqualegia, lily of the valley, ground ivy, rain. I don’t know how to describe everything. There is frankly no way this can be a photograph. It’s always a forgery of some kind before it starts: hard cameras on soft earth, light reflected off the English ghost story. Brand new rose-leaves a frail iridescent pink. Never try to describe a wet garden before breakfast. You will only regret not being called Elizabeth: “…they used to be lawns but have long since blossomed into meadows.”

mapped interiors

That night in the villages along the edge of the moor, spindrift eddied stealthily in the almost lemon yellow light of the sodium lamps, plastering the walls, furring the doors and padlocks of the coal sheds, piling up in the straw-filled ruts of the farm yards until they were covered up bland and spotless. When Sankey came home from work the wind had changed, thunder growled and banged distantly above it. By the next morning he thought the waterfall in Issue Clough might be frozen hard enough to climb: there were jackets of ice on the electricity supply cables where they drooped slackly from barn to barn, icicles developing along them at intervals like the spines and barbels of pale exotic fish; long lines of icicles hung from the corrugated roof of the milking shed. But by mid-day when, bundled up like a middle-aged farmer’s wife in a dirty nylon anorak, he plodded through the village to get coal, his hands hanging in front of him, they had begun to melt. Light poured in over the blackened threshold of the old smokehouse, falling among the eroded beams on to a clutter of broken ladders. A few dry beech leaves blew about in the heap of coal. As he stood there looking in, thunder banged tinnily again over towards Huddersfield.

We went to see him at the weekend and found him drowsily watching “Grandstand”. In the winter the downstairs room of his cottage was always full of fumes from the grate which slowly sent him to sleep. “The young man,” said the television, “whose odds have fallen so dramatically from eighty to one to ten to one overnight.” Sankey turned it off and gave us instant coffee grey with powdered milk, then hunched his shoulders and folded his arms, bending forward in his chair to gaze into the hearth.

“No drink seems hot enough to me today,” he apologised. “Everything seems to go down lukewarm today.”

volsie on kidultopia

In kidultopia, Volsie says, the old taboos have no power. Instead, alcoholic three year olds in thirty year old bodies control one another  by use of the wordoids “creepy”, “inappropriate” & “ew”. Embrace yr ew, Volsie says. Live yr creepiness. If to escape mojito kidultopian toddler rhetoric is necessarily to fall foul of mojito kidultopian toddler rhetoric, well a ew’s got to do what a ew’s got to do. But never in any circumstances think of yrself as a vampire, werewolf, “serial killer” or zombie, or any other symbol of threat now annexed, literalised & defused by kidultopian spectacle, because that would be too embarrassing for words. Instead you should think of yrself as inappropriately not nice looking.

horse spaces

Bad, bad pony.

A preview of Sam Green’s image for the 2013 mass market reprint of Light.

Kearney and Anna stayed in New York for a week. Then Kearney saw the Shrander again. It was at Cathedral Parkway Station on 110th Street, during some kind of stalled time or hiatus, some empty part of the day. The platforms lay deserted, though you sensed that recently they had been full; the heavily-rivetted central girders marched off into the echoing dark in either direction. Kearney thought he heard something like the fluttering of a bird among them. When he looked up, there hung the Shrander, or anyway its head.

“Try and imagine,” he had once said to Anna, “something like a horse’s skull. Not a horse’s head,” he had cautioned her, “but its skull.” The skull of a horse looks nothing like the head at all, but like an enormous curved shears, or a bone beak whose two halves meet only at the tip. “Imagine,” he had told her, “a wicked, intelligent, purposeless-looking thing which apparently cannot speak. Even the shadow of that is more than you can bear to see.” It was more than he could bear to see. He looked up for an instant, then broke and ran.

Light, February 2013.