the m john harrison blog

Month: July, 2013


    On these upper floors, the corners are all curved. No hard edges to hurt yourself on. The curved surfaces make you feel as if you’re going mad anyway. Losing definition. Losing purchase.

The drugs make you confused. The nurses make you dependant. The building makes you ill. Everything works to make you the proper denizen of the madhouse. Sometimes, James Scudamore’s Wreaking is a little too exhaustive and could be subtitled, “Everything I Know About UK Mental Institutions Since The Victorian Age”. But it’s undeniably well-written, funny, a complex metaphor for the condition of the NHS, and full of good stuff. This, for instance:

    Sometimes he spends time with a medical dictionary trying to label his own disorders. Apophenia is one. At various other times he’s been tempted by bipolarity, dementia, hypomania, schizophrenia, syllogomania. He wonders sometimes which of the old Victorian diagnoses he might be awarded if he were in their shoes. Uncontrolled Passion. Metaphysical Speculation. Mortified Pride.

Metaphysical Speculation, I think everyone here can own up to that.


street etiquette

Two people get out of their cars, slam the doors and greet each other– “Orright?” –in unison but an octave apart. The knack of “Orright?” is to pitch it as if the other person is at the far end of the village, even when they’re three feet away. It should sound cheerful, with a little musical lilt, but also imply that you have errands.

sixty eight

Hollyhocks, poppies, chamomile. All sorts of desperate lilies and iris. Those complex drooping rose and purple flowers that symbolised passion on the cover of an HE Bates novel in 1974, whose name I can never remember. A light you can’t tell from heat, contained somehow by the humidity, trapped in the air, gold even under cloud. The dogs bark next door. They bark up and down the street. Heat in the bricks, heat in every movement. You sit on the cellar steps. You wonder if the world will end, or just take some simple, beautiful, really amazing direction. You’re forced to admit it’s always been doing both, and that any minute now you’ll get up and go to the post office.

access all areas

It’s very Garner. Sunken lane with holly trees. Witch’s pool, steep-sided and dry. A cliff made, on closer inspection, of something friable between mud and stone. It all drops away steeply into the valley. But before that a dozen footpaths and neat, well-serviced boardwalks open up, all signposted by competing outdoor quangos, agencies, trusts, conservation bodies, nature reserves and local councils. They flex their muscles between the trees, run precipitously into one another, stumble into brand new stiles, topple into overgrown quarries and out again the other side, indicate in a quiet panic in all directions. They are saying, This way! and, This way! They are offering access. They are offering so much access. It’s confusing. The OS records two rights of way, the more significant of which, though it remains on the map, vanishes from the ground just as you have become used to it. To make things worse, half a mile into the wood we meet a woman in a Boden summer dress and high heels, walking away from an isolated house in the upper rooms of which a dog can be heard barking. I check to see if she is wearing gloves, because the rest of the outfit looks suspiciously 1950s.

reversing trains stop here

Late May. Flat earth paths under vast cloudscapes, architectures of rain and sunshine. Blackened spires. GBR Railfrieght low-loaders in rows. Blossom in cream waves; rollers of blossom bursting against fences, rail lines, suburbs; sprays and shellbursts of blossom across fields and hillsides. Someone always gets on the train with a toddler that has learned to make a piercing noise. By Grantham the weather has picked up. The cathedral spire glows in the sun. I catch a fleeting glimpse of Retford. I went to college there for a bit. It was one of the many weird temporary conditions of my life at that time. Short disastrous engagements. Bleak, shallow brushes with life on the part of someone so unformed he couldn’t manage more than an oblique relationship with anything or anyone. I’m surprised I can always talk about them so blandly. I wouldn’t go back to those days if I was paid. They were a nightmare like a Robert Aickman story, but with a lot less happening and a lot less learned. I was barely present. Not to be present at 67 years old is somewhere between a nuisance and a disgrace. Not to be present at 20 years old was to be in danger: so few allowances were made for people who didn’t connect, who didn’t get it. Later, the train waits by an industrial estate outside Bradford, a grim-looking shed with a word I can’t read written high up at one end. Then straight into a tunnel. Half a viaduct, ending suddenly in the middle of the valley it used to cross; not broken, but carefully sealed off with a hundred-foot brick facing. Gritstone houses dot the hillsides, each separated by an exact distance from its neighbours, like people taking up seats in an empty railway carriage to ensure maximum personal space and isolation. Sign: KEEP OFF THE TRACK. Sign: ASTONISH. Sign: REVERSING TRAINS STOP HERE.

armful of poppies

Sodden heaps of earth in a field. Crows beating southwards against a blustery wind. Mist blowing across the hilltop copses, threadbare pine trees on exposed slopes. A mass of chamomile and tiny orange poppies in the brown grass. She felt like gathering a whole armful of poppies, sweeping them up, wet and hairy-stemmed, petals already beginning to fall. Her arms would be covered with wet petals. She thought of orange petals floating on a dark green stream in some preRaphaelite painting, and shivered with pleasure. She remembered driving to one of those small towns, with names like Ilminster or Ilchester. Rain blowing in all directions through a haze of sunshine and exhaust smoke.

keeping it safe

We “keep you safe”, even when you know what you’re doing.

In return, you must agree, it’s your responsibility to keep everyone else safe. We’ve closed the Shard viewing platform anyway, just in case things aren’t safe enough. That’s just a little managerial precautionary safeness thing in case there’s a threat to safety from what you do.

You got one over on us by climbing the Shard, but if we can be seen to be keeping you safe for your own & others’ good, we’re back in charge again. We’re patronising you. We’re owning your action.

As long as we’re in charge, we’re saying, everyone keeps everyone safe. Safe is safe and safe and safe. We are all so safe now. Teletubby safe, in the pure nice safety of being managed.

“Recognising the right of individuals to express their point of view, we only ask that they do so with their safety …and the safety of others, including Shell personnel and customers in mind.”

First we keep everyone safe; then we rape the fucking Arctic.

Safety in this context is a laughably visible management strategy. It manages the dangerous women protesters–possibly uncontrolled, possibly even without full knowledge of what they’re doing–who have threatened the safety of all of us. It manages the women’s intrusion into the spectacle by framing it, setting it inside the language of the very corporate they’re protesting against.

No more of this. Change, instead.


zombies are coming for you

You can hate them without feeling wrong. You can kill them like eating sweets. Then you’re hungry again & you can kill more. They’re fully dehumanised. There’s no off-season, no moral limitation. They’re the enemy. What’s not to love? They’re what we really want. The zombie is the ultimate other in a neoliberal society. They’re a rhetoric we all can use. Zombies aren’t just for the insane Right, or for adolescent boys. They’re for everyone. People who lean Left–who consider themselves adult & multicultural & would never be caught othering–will happily slaughter zombies. Zombies are the ultimate other: the act of othering they represent doesn’t just remain unsaid (as it would with the Right): it remains unthought. The ultimate in deniability. Zombies: motiveless, other, but without any traceable connection to a group in the real world, they will never embarrass you by revealing their humanity. To position themselves as killable, they don’t even have to parrot the twaddle of “evil”. They’re the pinnacle of Hollywood characterisation, actant & action as a single unit. Deeper down, they allow you to refuse rational motivation to your victim, while encouraging you to claim victimhood for yourself. I’m surprised it took so long to make something like World War Z.

Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary republished as a NYRB Classic

“… we use one another as signposts to the self worth working on. That idea leads back to Russell Hoban’s own pursuit; and the book in which, for most readers, it began. The inexpressible is, if not his big white whale, at least his big green turtle. It’s the secret of which Neaera–the Anita Brookner of children’s writers–dreams in Turtle Diary, only to wake understanding absolutely: “Those who know it have forgotten every part of it. Those who don’t know it remember it completely.” But the secret of what, she asks herself puzzledly. Those who know or don’t know what ? Really she knows full well. The secret is not to write fantasies entitled Gillian Vole’s Jumble Sale, for instance; nor is it to goad a shark for the purposes of photography from inside a metal cage: if you do that, as Neaera says, you “have not really seen him or touched him” because the shark “is to man is what he is to naked man alone-swimming”. We all know that keeping a turtle in an aquarium won’t reveal the secret: but will freeing it, either ? Maybe not. It certainly won’t free us. In Hoban’s tenderest book the inexpressible is something to do with being alive as opposed to being merely conscious … Hoban saw it like this: the great turtles can navigate. They “know how to find something”. They bank and turn, against the current swim 1400 miles, “through all that golden-green water over the dark, over the chill of the deeps and the jaws of the dark.” Can you do anything worse to a creature than prevent it from finding what it can find ? Turtles are alive, and famous for their journeys, while merely conscious human beings trudge around in the hamster wheel of a sore, self-referential discourse.”

–from my review of Hoban’s The Bat Tattoo, Times Literary Supplement, 2002.