the m john harrison blog

Month: September, 2013

this seemed to bear repeating

The young use old things then throw them away & move on; the old use old things because they still work. Only the middle-aged have issues with nostalgia. They make a thing of it. Their fear is a fear of the loss of agency; they suffer momentary panic, taunt each other, grind themselves “forward” again in the attempt to stay in denial & keep their kids at bay. Are they doing the right things? Using the right objects in the right way? They’re not sure they know anymore. I use “middle aged” in its original sense, of course, not the contemporary one.


the dead never answer you back

V worked in a morgue. It was grim, she admitted, “But then again I saw my first corpse when I was fourteen and a half.”

The night we met she was drinking heavily and had become obsessed with something she had read about, a subspecies of people born looking like goats–hairy faces, amber eyes, a muzzle. They were born male, V said, though women carried the gene.

I had my notebook out within five minutes of meeting her. I wanted to know the secrets of the morgue but all she would say about that was, “The dead never answer you back.” She was more interested in the goats. “They can live normally, feed and clothe themselves. Isolated in villages of their own, they survive–perhaps stronger, certainly more intelligent than ordinary people.”

“Why aren’t there more of them ?” I asked. “Why haven’t I ever seen one?”

A few days later I had an email from her. She had got my address from a mutual friend. “You seem like a decent man,” she said, “so I’m sending you this. Get in touch if you’re interested.”

It was a quote from Maxim Gorky, which went: “In the spring of this year, during the first warm days, weird, fantastic people crawled out on the streets of Petrograd. Where and how had they lived hitherto ? Doubtless in some slum, in old, solitary, crumbling houses, hidden away from life, insulted and rejected by the world. One dominant thought cropped up in my mind every time I saw them: they have forgotten something and are trying to recall it, silently crawling about the town in search of it.

“They were dressed in worn-out, tattered clothes, they were dirty and evidently very hungry, but they did not look like beggars and did not ask for alms. Very silently, very carefully they walked along, watching the ordinary passers-by with suspicion and curiosity. As they stopped before the shop-windows, they examined the things exhibited in them with the eyes of folk who are trying to discover–or remember–what use one made of all those things.”

I didn’t know what to make of that. She sent me a couple more things but despite feeling that she was a rich vein of subject matter I didn’t answer.

a few rules of breathing

When I was ten my father, who worked all his life in the middle management of the aspiration game, said to me: “The compass knows the map, son, it knows when the map is near. Let the compass direct you to the map but whatever else you do in this stained forsaken world keep them apart. Else there won’t be sufficient salt water in the oceans to quench the soles of yr burning heart. See this tattoo? It says the fix is in with all that hidden treasure shit.” Sound advice, though I never took it & now I work the aspiration game too only I’m out here all weathers.

unimaginary review, 1990

An awesome cross-ply of the images that haunt the Thames, Downriver is presented not so much as a narrative as a sustained assault on our ideas of history, causality, sequence; our very ideas of narrative. Nevertheless, we constantly expect culmination, closure. Sinclair drags us along like some fast ebb tide, so that we do not “see” but become a bit of wood, a dead poodle, a lump of styrofoam like a head with all the features eroded away. Heart-in-the-mouth, awed and appalled by our sudden exchangeability with the items in his text, we constantly expect the something horrible which exists behind Downriver as an artifact–a construction, a consequence–of all the little horrors Downriver contains. There is no such relief. The tension simply mounts. Sinclair has put us in the position not just of the characters in his book (poring over a copiously illustrated volume of South Sea diseases; inventing and reinventing the lives of the Ripper and his victims); not just of its objects; but of its obsessive events.



Sunday lunchtime. We’re going against the flow, into Wales. Mystical light on hillsides. Caravans with ludicrous names. Dead foxes, cats. A brand new motorcycle rammed in among the ivy at the side of the road in a pool of its own fluids. It looks collapsed. Hard to see how it got there, given the angle of the bend. He passed us a couple of miles back, third in a fast but careful group. Now he’s standing fifty yards away from the wreck with his back to it. He looks ok, but none of his friends want to get too near him. He’s smoking hard and looking into the river fifty feet below. Furious with himself but glad at least he didn’t go over that side.

nunhead cemetery 1988

Very like Stoke Newington Cemetery, but with more of everything that matters. More unchecked undergrowth. More pathways, at stranger angles to one another. More cracked mausoleums and rusty padlocks. More black magic graffiti. A more dilapidated chapel. And, on the Brockley Footpath side, many, many more empty solvent cans piled in the little dells. A superior afternoon stroll on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

1980s studio

Matt white walls. Overall hung on the back of the door. Black futon pushed against the wall. A Victorian hatbox, complete with travel stickers. A shelf of books high up along one wall, its line extended on the adjoining wall by four small square canvasses. A couple of larger, rectangular paintings on the walls & several small ones stored on a shelf in the chimney breast: the rest she keeps downstairs. Always sit, she says, in the room. “Never along its edges.” She keeps turpentine in a Victorian inkwell, won’t use white spirit because it’s carcinogenic. “Always have a lid on the bin for turpentine rags, especially in a small room, otherwise you have to live with the fumes.” Rectangular glass palette with a bevelled edge, resting on a pile of boxes, placed low to eliminate shine off the glass. A Stanley glass-cleaner to scrape the palette. Brushes–dull orange, blue and brown–laid out on the varnished floorboards, or next to the palette on ribbed or corrugated paper to stop them rolling about. A tub of acrylic gesso primer. A wire basket full of tubes of oils. Vandyke brown, Indian Red, crumpled tubes leaden in the dull light. Oxide of Chromium (green). Monestial Green. Rowney, Windsor & Newton. Speedball oils from America. Small sketches on French watercolour paper, wavering pencil lines and little dabs of paint, their edges torn neatly along a ruler. On the easel is an unfinished picture. A woman stares out at the viewer. Behind her, more women and children are caught at the vegetable market.

muscle memory

Nettles grow high up in the bank of the lane, leaning over to head height where the pavement is narrowest. They smell dry even when they’re wet. Shocking orange berries on a shrubby rowan tangled in the hedge. The retirement builds set back from the lane always smell of cleaning and washing. Further along, the woods lean over too. From this point, you can sense the river down there in the gorge. The bridge too, although you can’t quite see it. I turn off abruptly, contour the slope into more open land, trudge up to the Hall, and bring back three kinds of willow leaves to identify. My body, perhaps retaining muscle memories of eight years in the Holme Valley a generation ago, is adjusting quickly to this kind of morning walk, shedding its London weight, leaning enthusiastically into the sharp little hills and grim old weather.

welcome to yr world

Apple’s iPhone 5C will come in yellow, green, blue and red. But is bright always right…? If you live in a world of toddlers it is. If you live in the world of people who manipulate toddlers to make their profits, the question itself is a gadget–a brightly coloured piece of plastic with no real function except to convince the user that she needs to pay for what it does. Fake objects, fake functions, fake commentaries, fake realities layered on top of the real function of everything, which is to make revenue and keep it moving up the hierarchy. Either you buy the plastic without a thought, or you think a marketing discussion represents the next clever level up. Welcome to your dinner party. Welcome to lifestyle. Welcome to your new housing bubble. Welcome to your new toy. Everything is going to be all right now. Welcome to business. Welcome to being a farmed consumer with a degree in farming consumers.