the m john harrison blog

Month: December, 2014

love & perspective

I’ve spent the whole day writing about Love for Lydia, and now I wonder why. Bates isn’t a writer anyone’s much interested in any more. Love for Lydia‘s not even his best work. I start out adoring it and end up angry with myself for being pulled in. A bit like Richardson himself, I suppose. It was published in the early 1950s, when I was a child in Warwickshire, and it seems to catch that time better than it catches the time it’s set in. This post, Lost Worlds, from four years ago, suggests I’m picking up on that:

…when I began to read HE Bates, my memories of the town of my birth, Rugby in Warwickshire, became fatally enslaved to Bates’s fictional Evensford. How to free them, except with care & hard work, image by image ? They were far too similar. Black sticks of reeds where the towpath has collapsed into the canal. A dead cat in a gutter in melting snow. The movements of people through streetlight, projected faintly on to the ceilings and upper walls of a bedroom; their laughter. The bang & squeal of trains coupling and decoupling in the night. A constant sense of the dry cold winds of the early part of the year, on building sites, on the corners of the streets down by the railway, under bridges, across pond ice, over the vast empty expanse of the cattle market with its moveable metal dividers. How do you begin to retrieve a landscape you spent so much of your life forgetting ? Not by using satellite maps, that’s for sure. All they record is its absence. To separate Evensford & Rugby, I need a psychic splitter, & it is uncertainty. Evensford is a place certain of its feelings–certain anyway that feelings, whatever turmoil they create, are the point; that even coldness and despair are part of human warmth & hope; that human mess is nothing less than human. I can read that out of the pervasive combination of love & perspective Bates imparts to every story. But everything I felt–everything that was communicated to me–in the very similar social & geographical spaces of postwar Warwickshire was simultaneously clouded and sharpened by anxiety, cancered-up with stealthy growths of alienation.

Though I didn’t read it until the mid-1970s, Love for Lydia trapped me in what’s become a weird, 60-year double loop, a tangle of memory, landscape, politics, emotional politics. I’ve never been clever enough to reason my way out. It sums me up, somehow. Inexplicable.

learning to skate

The first time you read Love for Lydia, you understand those opening scenes in which she learns to skate not just as a metaphor for life, or love, or sex, but as the beginning of a forty page allegorical synopsis of the rest of the novel. You know, somehow, what’s going to happen. Everything is unutterably lyrical but unutterably full of tension. You don’t know quite what you’re being told, but you know you are being told everything. While Lydia learns to skate, you are learning an emotional symbology. Later on you’ll be mapping every single tragic turn on to those frozen marshes, the bitter air, Lydia’s confusion and blunt self-consciousness as it gives way to elation, the great cry, “I can do it!” She can skate. Lydia can skate! “She went forward in a flash of release, suddenly, as everyone does, all alone, clear and confident at last and free.” Lydia can skate, and everything has already started to go wrong…

an afternoon in the history of the world

I enjoy writing about Forced Entertainment almost as much as I enjoy watching them perform. To go with my FE365 piece, here’s something I did in 2006 for the Vienna programme of The World in Pictures


Two o’clock in the afternoon in a rehearsal room like a bunker somewhere under Sheffield. The walls are black-padded. Two high-power electric heaters produce a pinky-orange light in one corner. A few chairs are lined up at one side, surrounded by the ordinary things that wash up out of life–coats, laptops, a half-eaten sandwich, some partly assembled caveman costumes made of fake fur.

    The company, about to perform a run-through of their new piece, wander about in this dimly lit space, half-confronting the history of the world. Such an undertaking must contain, they believe, everything they left out of their last show. It must be, in some sense at least, a reversal or inversion: where their last middle-scale work, Bloody Mess, concerned itself with the beginning and the end of the world, this new adventure, The World in Pictures, will apply itself to everything in between. This will mean a woman in a sexy frock, narrating a befuddled version of human history interrupted by cheap innuendo. It will mean hammering and banging, simulated sex, a volcano, industrial levels of noise and music, and, possibly, a bouncy castle. Large items will be dragged around. There will be a panel game, and this time handguns as prizes. A man will try to bite through a power cable. It will mean everything happening at once. On this stage civilisations are about to rise and fall.

First, though, we have to experience another kind of fall.

  The space goes dark. It goes empty. A nice young man in a T-shirt approaches the microphone and begins a monologue about killing time in a city you don’t know. His tone is familar yet distancing. When he says “you” that’s definitely what he means. He’s talking to you. He knows you, but not well. Not well enough, anyway, to be leading you on like this. Making this offer you canˆt refuse. By the time you realise the exact nature of the offer, you’ve also realised, too late, what a trap the second person singular can be, what a trap a nice young man can be. Meanwhile he is content, it seems, to have inserted a screwdriver between some of your assumptions–about yourself, about the world and your life in it, about, perhaps, what it is to be an audience–then applied steady, implacable leverage.

  This is one of the things Forced Entertainment does so well. One minute you’re laughing, the next minute you realise it wasn’t a joke. Too late now. One minute, trite music played from a mobile phone while a caveman made fire with two sticks, someone made a list of the real in a musing, lyrical tone while someone else drilled the word fuck into the bottom of a wooden drawer; the next it was all over and you were the audience again, retreating from the space that wasn’t quite you and wasn’t quite them.

Here in Sheffield, the run-through is over, and for me it’s April 2006 again. After 90 minutes of throbbing performance action I feel bruised, disoriented and elated, all at once, as I do at the end of every Forced Entertainment show. The floor is covered in shredded paper, and the performers (if that’s what they are, because now, as usual, I’m no more sure about what that word means than I am about the idea of performance itself) are exhausted; but the space is still theirs. It’s owned by them. They sit in a loose semi-circle around Tim Etchells, who speaks in a quiet, often puzzled voice. With his rolled trouser cuffs and stooped attitude, he looks like a homeless man who came in for the warmth and stayed to give advice. A discussion develops: suddenly no one’s as tired as you thought they were. I listen. I look forward to this piece being finished. I think: I can’t wait. In the same instant, I think: does a piece like this ever finish ? Because I’ll carry it away with me, the way I still carry Hidden J, Disco Relax, Speak Bitterness, all those other pieces.

“After the death of their elder brother the two Aspen sisters came back to Evensford at the end of February, driving in the enormous brown coachwork Daimler with the gilt monograms on the doors, through a sudden fall of snow.” —HE Bates, Love For Lydia.

2014 reads

I read quite a few books this chaotic Twitter- & Kindle-fuelled year, with lots of re-reads too. So this is not a list of “bests”, but–with one exception–of books I just really enjoyed. I know, not like me. But. The Free & Northline, Willy Vlautin. Wolves, Simon Ings; Helen Marshall’s Gifts For the One Who Comes After; Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist, such an interesting form; Little Egypt, Leslie Glaister; Europe in Autumn, by the criminally under-published Dave Hutchinson; Marshland by Gareth E Rees; The Uninvited, Liz Jensen; The Adjacent, Christopher Priest; Pig Iron and Beastings by Ben Myers; Consequences, Penelope Lively; Tigerman, Nick Harkaway; Maze, JM McDermott; The Race, Nina Allan. For the pure tripped-out strangeness sf does best: Peter Watts’ absolutely mad & engrossing Firefall; and William Gibson’s sophisticated The Peripheral, in which the descendents of our beloved familiar Russian oligarchs farm the “stubs” of discarded timelines–saturated & cool at the same time, and, underneath, a wild ride. Bete, from the punning pen of the incalculable Adam Roberts; The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber, the upshot of which broke my heart & made me cry, obsolete old romantic I would appear to be. Nonfiction: Out of Place, Edward W Said; The Atlantic Ocean, Andrew O’ Hagan; the very absorbing Forbidden & Permitted Stories by Valeria Ugazio; The Ash & the Beech, Richard Mabey; Jonathan Meades’ Encyclopedia of Myself; The Uncanny, by the other Nicholas Royle; Jackdaw Cake & Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis (the latter a Twitter recommend from Adelle Stripe). The Kindle led me into bad habits, namely reading a few Booker hopefuls for a change, including Richard Powers’ Orfeo and The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (went on to read The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, which I enjoyed as much if not more). Re-reads: The Triumph of Night, Edith Wharton. After forty-odd years, Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, which surprised me with its intelligence, humour and a dry kind of grace. Tim Etchells’ savage Endland Stories, which ought to be read in parallel with and in opposition to Graham Swift’s England stories. Most exciting job of work, 2014: writing the introduction to Ballard’s The Drought for the new Fourth Estate edition. Most enjoyable literary hashtag: #LossLit. Recommendations not yet followed up: The Dig by Cynan Jones, which I’ve heard is brutal & good. Most boring book of the year: Joseph O’Neil’s novel. The Dog, indeed.

a curious tale

Poor Souls’ Light event in Birmingham this evening, with Jenn Ashworth and Alison Moore. Decided to read the first twenty minutes of “Animals”. Thought I’d better try that out. Strange to read aloud for the first time something you wrote nearly a decade ago. There’s already something like a dirty window between you and it. You keep thinking, “Why did I write this? Did I write this to be read out loud? Or just for the page?” Then you begin to to remember who you were back then, and the inevitable huge rift opens up between the two of you. There’s a further complication with “Animals”: it’s assembled from so many layers of my own life that reading it is like reading a maze, like trying to interpret your own geological nonconformities and discontinuities. I feel like a Robert Aickman character, looking for Rosamund’s Bower but without any idea what Rosamund’s Bower might be or at what point you might be said to have found it. Serves me right I expect.

voices in the hills

Attempts to deliver outside as inside, to convert the landscape into a kind of built environment and our interactions with it into a confusion of messages and mission statements. Interest groups that deliver the outdoors to us are not the outdoors itself but by mediating the experience they turn it from an interaction with the outdoors into an interaction with them. Structural intrusions into the landscape market limiting messages about how it can be used. Loosely-associated entertainments draw a family demographic, playing into the hands of direct commercial exploitation. Landscape as backdrop, as ever. Signage & architecture intrude, multiply and move steadily towards the spectacular. 2050, the thing has become the picture of the thing, the plan for the thing: “Wind, stones, light trapped in the fast cold air along the hillside. Edwardian sunrise. We leave the bunkhouse hopeful, return tired from a day of voices in the hills, the hard winter crossing of the Interpretation Room of the Ogwen Visitor Centre.”

abandoned opening

My life built itself round a hallucination, a repeating dream, and one of those events that fills the media for a month or two before vanishing. To start with they had a curious similarity in tone. They were equally distanced and unthreatening, as if it wasn’t actually me experiencing them. In a way, it wasn’t. The person who experienced them came later. My mistake was to think of him as me, as the identity I had constructed by living my life. By then I had an identity all right: but all along it had been assembled…


Losers. Saps. People who don’t want anything much. Frail people, fragile people. Motiveless people (unless they’re evil). Broken people. People who won’t heal. People who can’t heal. Passive people. Disordered people. People who can’t stop themselves being bullied. People whose bullies don’t come to harm in the final chapter. People whose weaknesses of character aren’t balanced by corresponding opposite characteristics, or who are not redeemed by acceptable chains of events. Unacceptable chains of events. People who are too much this or that. People who won’t reason. People who are too rational. People whose puzzlement never lifts. People whose actions “don’t teach us anything about ourselves”. People I can’t identify with. People who walk away from their own narrative. People who are swept away by events (unless they’re subsidiary characters). Events that are too like reality to be interesting. Events that are too like reality to be true. Events that don’t seem familiar enough, even though they are set in a galaxy far away or in the very far future or in a civilisation of alien beings who look like plastic ducks but are in reality vortices of pure vacuum energy with goals utterly dissimilar to your own. Behaviour you really can’t understand. Sequences that don’t complete. Ideas that don’t ring true. Lack of verisimilitude. Lack of telos (see “dissimilar to your own”). Lack of common sense. Lack of a sense that this story is our story. Genuinely unpredictable events. Genuinely meaningless events. Anything obviously unacceptable that’s also funny. The obviously unacceptable insufficiently critiqued by the text. Directionlessness. Langour. The quality of being a rabbit in a headlight. The quality of being in a Tom Waits song. People the trajectory of whose lives is that of a series of Levy Flights cut short by unpredictable death. People who find the time to be alienated. People who find the time to be miserable. People who find the time to find time. People for whose idle hands the Devil found work. People who clearly haven’t got lives to live & families to bring up. People who should know better. People whose motives aren’t clear. People who should know everything the reader knows or they are clearly too stupid to live. People who aren’t sensible enough to act rationally in a deteriorating situation as if somehow they can’t see themselves doing the wrong thing. People whose ugliness is not within reasonable bounds or which has no hidden glamour. People whose anxiety is not within reasonable bounds or which has no hidden glamour. Doubt which has no hidden glamour. Doubt which has no outcome. A pistol which appears in act one but remains unfired at the end of act three. Bad people who aren’t on your side. People who are good one minute bad the next. Anything that might offend the reader’s politics. Anything that might offend the diametrically opposed politics of another reader. Irredeemable behaviour. Irredeemable circumstances. Unfathomable circumstances. Unfixable disasters. The actual end of the world, with no survivors. People who aren’t feisty. People who don’t know how to swim against the tide. People who never learn to kick ass. People who stay poor without a sick note from the narrative. People who stay poor without a sick note from the reader. People whose diseases aren’t, after all, going to be cured. People who don’t make a heroic effort. People who stay unhappy. People who don’t act as if they’re the centre of the universe.

This ran originally as “The List”, in 2011; but I think the category title, “things to avoid in popular fiction”, is more appropriate. Play “Chimes of Freedom” while reading. Or just read Jean Genet instead. Here at the Ambiente Hotel our promise to you the customer is “Never Knowingly Relatable”.

“Douglas Coupland told Disney that the problem with their films is that they’re too efficient, too seamless. I feel like recently every film or narrative structure is becoming too efficient. There’s no time to be distracted, you know what I mean? There’s no time to find your own time in the narrative.”

Pierre Huyghe interviewed by Doug Aitken