the m john harrison blog

Month: January, 2013

i’ve left you my kettle & some money

Ten years ago I looked up and saw a layer of fluid ice, the exact blue of the chemicals in a cold pack, trapped between two layers of air. It was still there an hour later. It was still there the next day, like a temperature inversion hanging above the lawn. I took a chair out and climbed up on it and put my hand in. There was no resistance. Nothing leaked out. I could see my hand in there. Once I got inside I could breathe, though there was some discomfort to begin with. I’ve been hauling my stuff up there ever since, stashing it item by item until I was ready to leave. I’ll have to crawl, because it’s pretty low, and I’m not sure what I’d find if my head broke out of the top. I know I can keep warm. I’ve got enough food for a month. After that I plan to live on my wits, always moving east, pushing the office furniture in front of me. None of the others know. Don’t tell them after I’ve gone.


notebook entry 1990

That afternoon the whole of Lambeth–street after street spread out in the sun–smelled of roasting coffee. I sat on a bench outside St Mary’s, surrounded by the continual groan and thud of traffic at the Lambeth Bridge junction, listening to a thrush as it shaped and defended its territory among the ornamental shrubs. Daisies and dandelions were already out in the grass. At the edge of the path grew lesser celandines, yellow, star-shaped flowers like flat buttercups with eight pointed petals. I had cycled across from Peckham to see the garden at St Mary’s, but it was shut. The light falling across the south flank of the church was almost enough to make up for that; the faint shadows of the plane trees were like the shadows traced on a limestone cliff on a warm winter day. Water the colour of milk chocolate roiling under Lambeth Bridge in the strong sunlight. Tourists blink and laugh. A women on her own stares down over the parapet. They photograph the barges: THAMES & GENERAL LIGHTERAGE COMPANY.

Sybille Bedford, JIGSAW: “To say that Jules, the Julius von Felden of the novel [A Legacy], was my father would be as misleading as to say that he was not. Jules is like my father and unlike; to what degree of either I do not know. My intention was to draw a character in fiction; I used facts and memories when they served and discarded them when they did not.” [p18, my insert in squares.] This is a very adequate description of what went on in Climbers. Bedford clearly feels no guilt. Neither does she feel that definitions–of fiction or autobiography–have been strained. In this she resembles Colette or Pritchett rather than Isherwood, who felt he had to apologise for “lying”; or Edward Upward, who as a young man allowed his identity to become fatally intricated with his own imaginative product, and who to counter this spent the rest of his life transcribing his life like a book-keeper. What is the difference between these two kinds of writer?

“by turns brilliantly satirical, impenetrably dense, and deliberately crude”

1597804614Here’s the cover of the US (Night Shade Books) edition of Empty Space, published on March 5th. I’m not sure which of the major female characters the image represents, but perhaps neither the 60 year old East Sussex widow nor the genetically modified sex worker. Meanwhile, Publishers Weekly describes the book as “The third in genre legend Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract sequence, following Light (2002) and Nova Swing (2007) … a self-referential mash-up of comedic horror and space opera caricature … most characters wallow in a state of existential angst and quantum absurdity, eventually coming to imaginatively grisly ends or beginnings, in a universe where sexual tourism powers economies and ‘stars and galaxies… look almost as remarkable as a new pair of Minnie Sittelman fuck-me pumps.'” So there you go. Order your copy now.


buried in exotic ground

Buggy tracks in snow. Spindrift blowing off the roofs. Silhouette of a labrador dog hauling the silhouette of a woman across Grove Road; detail from a Lowry of the West London suburbs. Meanwhile the van from Bathrooms At Source–a constant visitor to this pleasant street–ploughs its way responsibly towards the river, first-responder to the morning’s soft catastrophe. Everything is so hushed as he makes his way down! In Barnes, bathroom commerce, second only in religion to kitchen commerce, must go on. He’s closely followed by Bespoke Carpentry. Meanwhile, over in “Burma”, no crates of preserved Spitfires have come to light. Buried Spitfires! The very words are like a knell, awakening the British retroconscious to a deep sense of itself. The earth with which they turn out not to be compacted is the authentic dark chocolate of myth. We dream that Spitfires lie buried in exotic ground, the exact way they are embedded in our diffusing memories of empire. Meanwhile, perhaps the Spitfires dream themselves, in some half-world of suspended purpose, the trope of sci fi war machines made obsolete by time, waking too late. It’s the final reinscription. Ballard would have loved it.

chilly again

I inherited one of those liquid crystal thermometer cards British Gas distributes to pensioners. It’s installed near the desk. At the moment it doesn’t even say, “You are at risk of dying of hypothermia, you silly old fool! Put on more clothes! Turn up the heating you can’t afford! Eat some of that good high-calorific horse meat!” It is registering below that. In fact it is registering below the scale. The room is so cold that the pensioner thermometer can’t even patronise me. If I was a proper old person I’d be in the shit now. I’d have to spend two hours convincing the emergency services to come out (not including the means test); then, having failed, get myself into a taxi anyway & go die of neglect on a trolley in a packed annex somewhere off the Reformed National Health Service, while volunteer health workers struggled through their workload towards me. I’m glad not to have the bother of that, obviously: but I’ve already defaulted to a cup of tea, my Rab heavyweight fleece, Smartwool socks & a pair of dayglo orange duvet slippers from Spain; & suddenly I feel a bit privileged to be able to turn up the heating.


a man chases his daughter

A man chases his daughter along the pavement, shouting, “NO! NO!” I interpret this as command, panic, condemnation. Then I see that she’s stolen his ridiculous orange scarf. She’s giggling. He’s trying not to giggle. They’re dodging back and forth around a car. Ray Bradbury, interviewed in the Paris Review: “Get the big truth first. If you get the big truth, the small truths will accumulate around it.” I’d prefer to accumulate some small observations & see if they imply anything big–or indeed anything at all. Maybe it’s possible to work with that.


everything amazed them

Drawn by the radio and tv ads of the twentieth century, which had reached them as faltering wisps and cobwebs of communication (yet still full of a mysterious, alien vitality), the New Men had invaded Earth in the middle 2100s. They were bipedal, humanoid–if you stretched a point–and uniformly tall and white-skinned, each with a shock of flaming red hair. They were indistinguishable from some kinds of Irish junkies. It was difficult to tell the sexes apart. They had a kind of pliable, etiolated feel about their limbs. To start with they had great optimism and energy. Everything about Earth amazed them. They took over and, in an amiable, paternalisitic way, misunderstood and mis-managed everything. It appeared to be an attempt to understand the human race in terms of a 1982 Coke ad. They produced food no one could eat, outlawed politics in favour of the kind of burocracy you find in the subsidised arts, and buried enormous machinery in the subcrust which eventually killed millions. After that, they seemed to fade away in embarrassment, taking to drugs, pop music and the twink-tank which was then an exciting if less than reliable new entertainment technology. Thereafter, they spread with mankind, like a kind of wrenched commentary on all that expansion and free trade. You often found them at the lower levels of organised crime. Their project was to fit in, but they were fatally retrospective. They were always saying: “I really like this cornflakes thing you have, man. You know ?” [From Light, 2002.]

what you won’t know

Sometimes a writing problem will begin to resolve itself when you recognise that you haven’t been acknowledging pivotal events in your life. You’ve changed without knowing it. You were looking in the wrong place for solutions because you were looking in the wrong place for yourself. This recognition, however, doesn’t provide automatic or short-term relief. It’s unlikely to be a professional solution. The problem of writing is always the problem of who you were, always the problem of who to be next. It is a game of catch-up, of understanding that what you’re failing to write could only be written by who you used to be. Who you are now should be writing something else: what, you won’t know until you try.

country matters

I bought a set of cheap cast iron dumbells. They arrived in the kind of plastic case you associate with home drilling equipment, which smelled strongly of whatever compound the manufacturer had used to keep the iron from rusting. It was an intrusive smell–not quite mineral, not quite organic–so, since I intended to store the weights in the case, I put it out on the balcony & left it to the cleansing rain of Suburb Barnes. It’s been out there ever since. Internally it has the shape of a set of dumbells with the weights affixed in increasing rather than decreasing size, & it opens flat. Within hours these graded rectangles were full of water. A few days later the squirrel turned up &, after an angry look around to make sure nobody wanted to make anything of it, took a drink. She’s been visiting the new pond daily ever since. If I keep still I can watch her suck it up, an act she performs with as much aggressive, whole-body physicality as she does everything else. Chemical residues don’t seem to have turned her into any more of a monster than she already was. I’ve had a lot of use out of the weights and now the squirrel has too. I was wondering: if I introduced a few small fish, would I perhaps attract a heron.