the m john harrison blog

Month: February, 2015

‘“to thaw” is to ungive

“There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a distant echo. Nature will not name itself. Granite doesn’t self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject.” Robert Macfarlane in the Guardian today, as exact as ever. I read him & I think, “No contest.” I’ve no idea what I mean by that, except that at his best he somehow obviates the collision–the war–between prose and things: even when, as here, he’s confronting it, admitting it (both admitting to it and inviting it in). This is everything you want from an essayist and landscape writer. I can’t wait to read Landmarks.


a difficult time for everyone

If you’re in London on the evening of the 5th March & you’d like to hear me reading “The Crisis”, leave an email address here, or DM me at @mjohnharrison on Twitter–

Adolescence. West London. You always believed a hidden war was being fought, a war nobody would ever admit to. Lay awake at night, listening to bursts of corporate fireworks that seemed too aggressive to be anything other than a small arms exchange; while by day, ground-attack helicopters clattered suddenly and purposively along the curve of the Thames towards Heathrow. You held your breath in moments of prolonged suspense, imagining the smoke trails of rockets launched from the bed of a builder’s pickup in Richmond or Kingston. These fantasy-engagements, asymmetric and furtive, a kind of secret, personalised Middle East, left you as exhausted as masturbation. There was something narcissistic about them. A decade later, everyone was able to feel a similar confused excitement. With the coming of the iGhetti, everyone had a story to tell but no one could be sure what it was. Information was so hard to come by. Between anecdotal evidence and the spectacular misdirections of the news cycle lay gulfs of supposition, fear, and denial. People didn’t know how to act. One minute they heard the guns, the next they were assured that nothing was happening. One day they were panicking and leaving the city in numbers, the next they were returning but rumour had convinced them to throw their tablet computers in the river. The thing they feared most was contagion. They locked their doors. They severed their broadband connections and tanked their cellars. They avoided a growing list of foods. They clustered round a smartphone every summer evening after dark, eavesdropping on the comings and goings of the local militas as they scoured the railway banks and canalsides for telltale astral jelly. Were the iGhetti here or not? It was a difficult time for everyone.


today’s plot

Me & my friends are right-thinking & cool & therefore the way will be smoothed & no struggle will really be a struggle. Vast risks, energies & hierarachies will be referred to, but we will be ok. Something may happen here, something may happen there, but we’ll rise above that & so–though the text signs it as both, & though we might once or twice put our fists to our hips in exasperation–it will never really get difficult or frightening. Powerful forces will be gaming us but we will be gaming them too because we are smart. It will be as if the actions we carry out don’t need to be carried out or have already been successfully carried out. It will be as if we’ve been thought forward. It will even seem as if the universe has said: Look, we all know what this is about and we all know what that is about, because we have the right attitudes, & so let’s move you on to the proper conclusion.


Embrace austerity. Take the shit money, suck up the shit treatment. Let it make you hard, unforgiving & suspicious of everything. Appropriate all those faked-up calls for discipline & self control & make them real. Use them to build. Organise quietly in the evenings & at weekends. Don’t use the phone. Avoid the internet. Don’t be public. Don’t join the debate. Don’t bother with the left (the left allowed itself to be liquidated in one generation, not by vertical force but by the horizontal spread of philosophies of greed & narcissism). Real austerity is the last thing the one percent want to see in an economy. Real austereness is the last virtue they possess or want to possess. Real austereness is the last thing they expect from anyone. Real austereness is the last quality they want you to have, because they built their counter-revolution on selling self-indulgence & it’s the only technique they know. Reject comfort. Take austerity to yourself & use it. Be careful who you talk to. Learn how to be calmly determined & work for long term change.

who is anyone kidding here

Or knows which way up anything is. You need a lot of bolts & sometimes even that’s not enough. There’s no certainty this is the neck or that, even if it is, it’ll hold the head on. Just the usual sounds of the floor being up, probably in the wrong room, & a cheerful sense of applied despair. All morning connecting three feet of pipe to nothing. Fucked ducting. Defibrillators, dessicant dehumidifiers & now something like a lobster the size of a kiddy but without a shell, stuffed in there for reasons no right minded person could entertain. You’re late, you brought the wrong tools & you’re supposed to think of this as the chassis? Then shouts from near a stream (they sound like they come out of the Brueghel in the middle distance) & your mother’s voice from, really, a long time ago, asking what’s the story & advising you put that arm down. You’re in the wrong house again, Jack, & it’s rain later.

a kind of careful rage

‘Anna Kearney, meanwhile, her mood still elevated, loitered a moment or two on the consulting-room steps, watching the tide sidle upriver like a long brown dog; then, with the whole afternoon in front of her, made her way by two buses and a train to Carshalton. September, the greenhouse month, wrapped discoloured, vaporous distances around Streatham Vale and Norbury, where silvery showers of rain–falling without warning out of a cloudless blue-brown haze–evaporated from the hot pavements as quickly as they fell. Nothing relieved the humidity. At the other end, Carshalton dreamed supine under its blanket of afternoon heat as Anna made her way cautiously back to the house on The Oaks, approaching this time from the direction of Banstead, crossing the Common on foot–past the prison compounds which lay as innocuous as gated housing in the woods–and entering the maze of long suburban streets at a point halfway between the hospital and the cemetery. 121, The Oaks remained empty, with no sign of the boy who had disturbed her on her previous visit. When she tried the back door it proved to be unfastened as well as unlocked, opening to a push. Inside, economics–as invisible as a poltergeist, a force without apparent agency–was dividing the place up into single rooms. Evidence of its recent activity was easy to come by: stairs and hallways smelling of water-based emulsion and new wood. Bare floors scabbed with spilt filler, power cables lying patiently in the broad fans of dust they had scraped across the parquet, ladders and paint cans that had changed places. Anna wandered around picking things up and putting them down again, until she came to rest in what had been a large back bedroom, split by means of a plaster partition carefully jigsawed at one end to follow the inner contour of the bay window. In this way, the invisible hand generously accorded its potential tenants half the view of the garden–flowerbeds overgrown with monbretia and ground-ivy, rotting old fruit nets on gooseberry bushes, a burnt lawn across which the damp, caramel-coloured pages of a paperback book had been strewn. Anna blinked in the incoming light, touched the unpainted partition, drew her fingers along the windowsill. Sharp granular dust; builders’ dust. Nothing can hurt in these unfinished spaces. Life suspends itself. After a minute or two, an animal–a dog, thin and whippy-looking, brindled grey, with patches of long wiry hair around its muzzle and lower legs–pushed its way through the hedge from the next garden and went sniffing intently along the edge of the lawn, pausing to scrape at the earth suddenly with its front paws. Anna rapped her knuckles on the window. Something about the dog confused her. Rain poured down suddenly through the sunshine, the discarded pages sagged visibly under the onslaught as if made of a paper so cheap it would melt on contact with water. Anna rapped on the window again. At this the dog winced, stared back vaguely over its shoulder into the empty air. It shook itself vigorously–prismatic drops flew up–and ran off. The rain thickened and then tapered away and passed. Out on the lawn, humidity wrapped about her face like a wet bag, Anna collected up as much of the book as she could and leafed through it. It was the novel the boy had recommended to her, Lost Horizon, ripped apart, perhaps, because it had finally failed to deliver on its promises of the world hidden inside our own. None of the pages were consecutive. Anna could assemble only the barest idea of the story. A crashed nuclear bomber pilot, perhaps American, finds himself in a secret country, only to have it–and his heart’s desire–snatched away from him at the last; paradoxically, that very loss seems to endorse the reader’s hope that such a country might exist. The front cover had been torn down the middle in a kind of careful rage. Anna read: “The classic tale of Shangri-La”. A telephone, its ringer set to simulate an old-fashioned electric bell, started up inside the house.’ —Empty Space, 2012.

every week another town

Ed liked to walk around in the cold bright morning through the circus itself, moving from the salt smell of the dunes to the smell of warm dusty concrete that filled the air around the tents and pavilions. He wondered why Sandra Shen had chosen this site. If you landed here it was because you had no corporate credentials. If you left from here, no one wished you good luck. It was a transit camp, where EMC processed refugee labour before moving it on to the mines. Paperwork could maroon you at the noncorporate port for a year, during which your own bad choices would take the opportunity to stretch it to ten. Your ship rusted, your life rusted. But you could always go to the circus. This in itself worried Ed. What did it mean for Madam Shen? Was she trapped here too? “This outfit ever move on?” he asked her. “I mean, that’s what a circus does, right? Every week another town?” Sandra Shen gave him a speculative look, her face shifting from old to young then back again around its own eyes, as if they were the only fixed point in her personality (if personality is a word with any meaning when you are talking about an algorithm). They were like eyes looking out from cobwebs. She had a fresh drink beside her. Her little body was leaning back, elbows on the bar, one red high-heel hooked in the brass bar rail. Smoke from her cigarette rose in an exact thin stream, broke up suddenly into eddies and whorls. She laughed and shook her head. “Bored already, Ed?” she said. —Light, 2002.

jack & elizabeth in the site

“It was a hypermarket of the meaningless, in which the only mistake–as far as Jack could discern–was to have shopping goals. The idea that you might map things in there in terms of your needs was what had so entrapped and confused Emil Bonaventure’s generation. It was safer to learn how things worked, then assemble the portfolio of habits, behavioural tics just this side of the psychotic regime, that stood in for having a clear frame of reference and kept the travel agent from harm. “Everything smells of sulphur,” Elizabeth said. “Does it smell of sulphur to you?” She said, “Do you ever go into a building while you’re here? Jack, let’s go in one of these buildings! We could fuck in a building, wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t you be excited by that?” Eventually they were driven off the streets by the rain and the approaching dark. Jack wasn’t keen to enter any unfamiliar space–they could so quickly become the arena of your worst expectations. But it was night as Saudade knew it, and Elizabeth was cold. She looked up into the rain, which seemed to fall towards her through layers of unsourced light, then down at her clothes. “I’m shivering, Jack,” she said in a surprised voice. Everywhere they tried was full of cats, facing into the corners, lined up along the walls, balancing on the arms of chairs, pressed together too tightly to move. Jack was relieved to find them at such densities. “It means we aren’t too far in yet.” The ground floor of the building he chose had no internal walls, although you could see the stub brickwork where they had been.” —Nova Swing, 2006.


With Liz Jensen & Simon Ings at Arvon Totleigh Barton last year. Photo: Cath Phillips.