the m john harrison blog

Month: April, 2013

instructions for an unwritten story

“Every generation has its intellectual obsession: a new kind of politics, a new kind of science, a new kind of war. My generation was obsessed with Autotelia, a new kind of country. We watched with a tense amazement the grainy video of its capital city, the greyish streets so similar to our own. When the first Autotelians began to arrive on our side of things…etc.” His mother’s tea party for the Autotelians is a farce. After it, when he goes to their house, he sees the men in overcoats smashing the flower pot in the hearth, then a “yawning white face” in the hall. He leaves hurriedly. Work up to the tea party through his mother’s descriptions of the Autotelians; some events of little significance in the square; and his interest in the girl. Later, in Autotelia itself, he is taken to a place where a man who might have been his vanished friend Ashman once “stayed for some time”. The room sordid. Some accident–a small fire perhaps–on the carpet near the tallboy; a faint smell of excrement. “‘There was a lot of crying out,’ the landlord said: ‘Always a lot of crying out.’ And he managed to convey with shrugs, nods and grins that we both knew what that might mean. ‘In the morning he was gone.’ While we talked, I could hear someone pacing about in the room above.”


climbers: the journal

Mike climb001The notes on which I based Climbers were taken in situ in a series of cheap notebooks with puppies and flowers on the front, often given to me as presents by family members. I began gathering material in 1979. By 1983, this collection had become a rat’s nest, so I took to transferring each worked-up note–by then often a finished, polished scene–into a sort of journal, which also contained some commentary, structural ideas, lists of names and so on, along with polaroids, postcards, news clippings and other material. These notes, the earliest of which is dated 1st January 1983 and the latest 2nd November 1988, were transcribed in obsessively neat handwriting using a strict rota of coloured pens. Though I lost the original notebooks, I still have the journal. It stood in a complex relationship with, and served as a feeder for, the actual writing of Climbers, which went on concurrently elsewhere; also as a record of one of happiest and most productive times of my life. The pages were carefully numbered. The photographs, especially polaroids, have become faint and dark-looking at the same time, tinged with purples and greens not present in the lived scene.DSCF7112p101, 5.2.84, the earliest working synopsis.DSCF7114p116/7, 4.4.84, Tissington SpiresDSCF7116p191/2, 10.3.85, mentions a 35mm photo, long gone, of a child’s shoes “dumped at the edge of the road under Craig y Forwin.”DSCF7117197/8, 17.9.85: the photo is of the author, on “Toy”, Curbar Edge, a month later.

The new edition of Climbers, introduced by Robert Macfarlane, can be pre-ordered now from Amazon UK, in ebook and paper; or bought at a bookshop from May 10th.

empty space, what it means (4)

    The world we see is an illusion, albeit a highly persistent one. We have gradually got used to the idea that nature’s true reality is one of uncertain quantum fields; that what we see is not necessarily what is.

Alexander B Fry, “In the Dark”, Aeon

away day

Very blue sky. Light rebroadcast into the room by the weird yellow facades of the buildings across the road. Shouts from the all-day drinkers in the bars down the hill. We could be anywhere in Tenerife, except for the temperature and the English newspapers scattered over the carpet. In fact it’s the Midlands. There’s tractor porn on the newsagent’s top shelves, shooting accessories in the ironmongers, and the gentle remains of Georgian town houses compete with the main street pet enterprises to see who’ll subside first. I quite like it. It’s nice.

happy birthday…

…to the National Parks.

How much longer will we be able to rely on them as public breathing space?

at the gate

I woke up a few months ago in a shower of unpaid bills. I’d forgotten to top up my current account. All I felt was a kind of cheerful disappointment with myself. I walked around for a bit thinking mildly, “You’d better get a grip.” Then I began to see the terror of it: a lifetime’s anxieties exchanged for a state of warm dissociation interrupted by brief moments of politicised rage. Later I went to see Haneke’s Amour at the Gate in Notting Hill. The Gate is a smallish cinema, maybe a hundred seats. Eighty of them were occupied by couples over sixty, all acting as if they had arrived recently from an Anita Brookner novel. That was a lot more disturbing than the film. It’s a wonderful film, but I didn’t feel I belonged in that demographic, or that I’d gone to see it because it was in some way addressed to that demographic. To watch it for those reasons would seem to me to rigidify the meaning of the film and limit its scope.

a volatile medium

While I still lived with Pauline we went to a “psychic” who gave demonstrations on most weekdays in the North London area. He appealed mainly to women who found they had nothing to do in that part of the afternoon which sags out — especially in winter — between the hairdresser and the children’s tea, and he preferred to work in clean but draughty modern halls, panelled with light wood and smelling of polish, used in the evenings for other functions: lectures, Bubuek films, political meetings. There would be a shrouded projector at the back, thick blue velvet curtains, a lectern pushed to the side of the platform.

Sleet touched the tall windows the first time we went. That was in Golders Green, and darkness was already drawing round some shrubs and a bench in the gardens outside. It was odd to sit there at three o’ clock in the afternoon among all those women. It had a kind of intimacy.

“Now give him the benefit of the doubt,” Pauline had warned me on the tube from Camden. “Or you can just stay outside. It’s only an hour.”

He was a man of about fifty five or sixty, tallish, who wore an old-fashioned tweed jacket and whose resonant but haggard professional voice sometimes took on a nicely-judged edge of irritability. He had a practical face: but it was so white and bony you thought immediately of a terminal disease, and of all his practicality committed there, to the control of his own panic. It was his own panic, I suppose, that enabled him to recognise theirs.

“I think we could have the curtains closed,” he said.

His method was to work his way along the rows saying to one woman, “You have what I call the artistic temperament,” and to another, “You have just returned from that so-difficult trip abroad you feared.” He stood awkwardly in the middle of the platform and picked them out by pointing to them, two or three from each row. “Well, there was nothing to be frightened of, was there ?” Clearly he was guessing these things from an item of dress or a sun tan; neither did he hide the fact that many of the women were already regulars of his, with habits and circumstances known to him. “Did he buy you that ring in the end dear ? And was it that ring ?”

Yet they sat so patiently, relaxed by the distant hum of traffic making its way down endlessly into the city, nodding and laughing and exclaiming to encourage him. If they couldn’t immediately relate to their own lives the things he said, they signalled by willing frowns that they were prepared to puzzle over it. It was after all an insight and they were not going to waste it. It seemed quite sufficient to them.

“You’re a woman of the world dear and you know how to help him. I can say that to you I think, can’t I, without giving offence ?”

He could.

As his hour wore on he sometimes prompted them openly. “I see a lady. An old lady. Yes, I see and old lady and she. Yes, she isn’t very well. An old lady in a room. In a room upstairs.” Used up in his own struggle to keep from evaporating away, he looked along the rows of seats for help. “Now does anybody here know an old lady like that ? I do sense her very strongly, very close. She’s very close to us now. Does anybody remember an old lady like that ? Yes dear ? Does that mean something to you, dear ? Does it ? She’s in a red dressing gown and she’s reading a book. I can tell you that if it helps. Is it a bible dear ? Does that mean anything to you?”

By now it did. Someone had recognised this spectre as her grandmother, seen once in childhood, after that never again.

“Well she thinks it’s time to sell that thing you were talking about, dear,” he said. And then, producing their previous exchange, at Belsize Park a week before, as if it was in itself a psychic sleight of hand: “You remember we talked about it last time ?”

“Oh yes,” she whispered, delighted.

The women near enough to hear her nodded at one another significantly, and also with a sort of angry commonsensical triumph. This was the advice they would have given, all along.

Whenever he felt their attention begin to wander he jerked his head up as if he could hear a voice and said impatiently: “It’s no good. I can’t tell what you want if you don’t speak clearly.” The effort to hear was costly, and made him seem even more ill. It gave his face the inanimate look of a mask, or a painted balloon on a piece of string which someone had tugged sharply towards one of the upper corners of the room and then released. He asked the women puzzledly, “Is there anyone here called Erica or Eileen ?” They stared at one another. This time, though they were sympathetic, they were unable to help. One of them had a daughter whose name was Eveline. But the message, elusive, garbled, fragmentary, sporadic as a twitch, didn’t seem to be for her.

[From Climbers, preorder here.]

a new edition of climbers

9780575092174 If I’m delighted to have Climbers–certainly my best novel–back in print, I’m even more delighted to have an introduction to it by Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places and The Old Ways, and chair of this year’s Man Booker Prize judges. Here’s a glimpse–

So let me try to express a little of the amazement I feel when standing in front of the work of Harrison … To read Light, Nova Swing, Empty Space or Climbers is to encounter fiction doing what fiction must: carrying out the kinds of thinking and expression that would be possible in no other form. I pass through his novels feeling a mixture of wonder, calmness and disturbance; I end them brain-jarred and unsettled. It takes time to recover. Metaphysical tremors and echoes persist for days afterwards…

It takes time, also, to realise that what feels at first like bleakness in Harrison’s novels is in fact something more like parity of gaze. He offers lucidity without pity, but without rancour either. Although the fierce ease with which capitalism husks humanity is one of his main anxieties, and although debris–emotional and material–is one of his chief preoccupations, and although rupture and damage are the textures that most attract his eye, his vision is devoid neither of tenderness nor of hope. His compassion will be unmistakable to anyone who reads him…

Robert Macfarlane’s engagement with landscape and the philosophy of landscape is acute, searching and in the best sense poetic. His work places him firmly in a tradition which stretches back to the Romantics, while his understanding of the anti-sublime makes him fiercely contemporary. To have this introduction isn’t just a thrill: it gives me hope that Climbers might in some way fit into and extend that tradition too. That will have made it worth being a writer.

Climbers is published in May, and available for pre-order, on Kindle or paper, at Amazon now.

chaos patterns

1597804614She stood companionably next to him for a moment, hands on hips, looking around the mostly empty space as if oil-stained floors and fluorescent warning stripes held an innate interest for her. Epstein didn’t like the way she relaxed. She was too hard to avoid. Her tailoring occupied the warehouse like another personality: everything interested it, from a momentary change in Epstein’s breathing to the sound of footsteps half a mile away. Every time its attention shifted, he caught the rank, exciting smell of hormonal gradients. She would smile at you behind that as if remembering something sexual you had enjoyed together, while pictographs ran chaos patterns down the inside of her forearm, from elbow to wrist like print from the historical times. She was some cheap cutter’s idea of the future.

From Empty Space (excerpt here), third volume of the trilogy that began with Light and Nova Swing (winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award 2007). All three here & at Amazon US.

ceremony & pathology of the blessed angel of our country

“Sometimes as it blows across the Great Brown Waste in summer, the wind will uncover a bit of petrified wood. Mammy Vooley’s head had the shape and the shiny grey look of wood like that. It was provided with one good eye, as if at one time it had grown round a glass marble streaked with milky blue. She bobbed it stiffly right and left to the crowds: who stood to watch her approach; knelt as she passed; and stood up again behind her. Her bearers grunted patiently under the weigh of the pole that bore her up. As they brought her slowly closer it could be seen that her dress–so curved between her bony, strangely-articulated knees that dead leaves, lumps of plaster and crusts of wholemeal bread had gathered in her lap–was russet-orange; and that she wore askew on the top of her head a hank of faded purple hair, wispy and fine like a very old woman’s. Mammy Vooley, celebrating with black banners and young women chanting; Mammy Vooley, Queen of Uroconium, Moderator of the city; as silent as a log of wood.” [The Luck in the Head, 1982, from Viriconium, also in audio download.]