the m john harrison blog

Month: January, 2016


Three days before delivery, the review should look like a roast chicken carcass on a plate. It’s stuck there with congealed fat, the carving knife and fork abandoned one each side. Everyone’s had a go at it, hot and cold. The knife has sliced. Fingers have plucked and tugged. It’s at the end of its run, this bird, but there are still a few drying shreds stuck to the bones and one or two detached bits scattered about. (That, for instance, was definitely a wing. At some stage.) But the skeleton is otherwise sound: viewed from close up, it has a keel, it resembles something reliable, something structural, something from a shipyard. My job is to put the chicken back on the bones, make it into a chicken again. If I have to I will counterfeit the missing items. There will be a point soon when it looks whole and glazed and steaming from the oven, as if it actually exists as a thing and is now ready to be used; as if it’s at the beginning of its journey rather than the end. That point will come soon, if I know what I’m doing.


who’s dead & who’s alive

Disconnected memories. Uncertainty of events and entities in their “relationship” with reality. The author positioned like Maxwell’s demon, feeling able to claim that this is the inside & that is the outside (the conscious & unconscious, the forgotten & remembered, the admissible & the inadmissible). Calculatedly inefficient filters will be placed at points of transition represented as boundaries and edgelands. The hiatus or glitch, the dropped catch or stitch between the living & the written.

cold grit

“You’d have to be mental,” Sankey said, “to go climbing in this.”

Nevertheless you can see him on the polaroid I took that afternoon, his bright orange waterproof jacket blowing out behind him like a comic book cape as he stands anxiously looking up at Normal who is stalled out halfway up the crag. The picture deteriorated in some way — perhaps because of the cold — soon after it was taken, chemical changes giving the light a dead green cast and making the rock look black and featureless. Normal seems to be pasted on to it, one arm raised wearily. The snow is the same colour as the sky, and only a row of little outcrops marks the division between the two.

These few buttresses of rough grit, heavily pebbled with quartz and perched like boulders on the skyline, are nice to come to on a summer evening, when the hang gliders lie out on the shallow slopes beneath them in the golden light like exhausted butterflies. The day I took the Polaroid we could hear each separate gust of wind building up miles away across the moor before it burst round the aretes on to us, whipped Normal’s rope out into a tight parabolic curve, and whirled off down the valley to strafe the sheep. There was snow packed into all the cracks. When we excavated it we found hard ice underneath, as shiny as solidified Superglue. Our noses ran. The wind pulled the strings of mucus out grotesquely, so that during the instant before they snapped they floated with all the elegance of spider-silk. Our fingers went numb, only to come back to life twenty or thirty feet up, at just the wrong moment, the size of bananas and throbbing with hot-aches.

Eventually Normal had to give in and come down.

“It’s no good. I can see what to do but I can’t convince myself to do it.”

His hands were curled up and broken-looking from the cold. They were bleeding where he had knocked them without knowing on the rock. He pulled his mittens on with his teeth and for a while all three of us huddled beneath a big undercut, where it was a bit warmer. But the wind got in under the lip of it and drove ice into our faces, and soon that became a misery too.

“It’s no good.”

Normal and Sankey began to pack up the gear, stuffing ropes and harnesses untidily into their rucksacks.

“It seems a bit brighter over there,” I said.

“It always seems a bit bloody brighter over there.”

–from Climbers, 1989.

you must never say this

At their most human, writers seem like animals unable to remember the behaviour that would properly define them–as with Russell Hoban’s zoo turtles, forbidden to make their vast signature journeys. Only this isn’t the result of captivity. No one did this to anyone–it’s just loss or confusion. That seems even more tragic. People soon learn to be people, but writers try something else and from quite early on in their lives it doesn’t work out, so they keep on trying it, writing their way round the tank.

the problem of writing is always the problem of who you were

Sometimes a writing problem will begin to resolve itself when you recognise that you haven’t been acknowledging pivotal events in your life. You’ve changed without knowing it. You were looking in the wrong place for solutions because you were looking in the wrong place for yourself. This recognition, however, doesn’t provide automatic or short-term relief. It’s unlikely to be a professional solution. The problem of writing is always the problem of who you were, always the problem of who to be next. It is a game of catch-up, of understanding that what you’re failing to write could only be written by who you used to be. Who you are now should be writing something else: what, you won’t know until you try.

–Originally posted as “what you won’t know”, January 11th, 2013.

I don’t know what happened to the bear

I dreamed I was running away from a bear down some institutional corridor. It was a big bear, like a grizzly, light brown, but not grungy or used-looking the way a real bear would be, with drool etc. The layout was this: to begin with, the bear was outside in the car park, the other side of the main doors. But I knew it would get in. Before that happened I had to run up a short flight of stairs & close another set of doors behind me; then run down the corridor, closing doors at intervals behind me. Each time I opened & closed one set of doors, I knew that the bear had reached & opened the previous set. Then I had to run up another short flight of stairs and climb an old-fashioned indoor climbing wall. Just before the top, the wall flared radically & the holds got progressively hard to use. You were quite high up by then. This dream’s anxieties were based on repetition: every time I got near the top of the wall, I found myself back at the outer doors. I had to do that seven times. I had to run up the short stairs, open & slam the door; run down the corridor, opening & slamming all the doors; run up the stairs at the end; & climb the wall. To start with, it was fun. It was easy. The bear was slow & puzzled & not in any way used-looking. The wall was, to be honest, a piece of piss. But each repetition took it out of me, & the wall seemed harder. Even so, I was ok on it. In fact each time I did it, I found a new, interesting solution to the overhang: until the seventh time. The seventh time I realised that I’d chosen a complex, unreversible sequence of smooth, sloping holds; that as the overhang pushed me out it was also inevitably pushing me off the holds; and that though I wasn’t sure this solution would work, my strength was running out. I was committed. I had to put most of my body weight on the final, oblique sloper & make a long, awkward reach for the top, which was in itself sloping. I don’t know what happened to the bear. By then the bear wasn’t the issue.

the sort of book that might appear in a short story in a collection just like this

Ghosts being such rich contributors to the tradition, the very first item on Philip Hensher’s shopping list of best British short stories is “A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs Veal” by Daniel Defoe. Defoe’s opening clause, “This thing is so rare in all its circumstances”, which Penguin have printed on the back board of the first volume, might be a statement of intent on behalf of the form itself. The most abject of short stories must make this claim, if no other, somewhere in its content, or structure; many, of course, fail to deliver on it… More

My review of The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, in the TLS today.

steady down

Why are genre writers so desperate to convince? Treat ’em mean keep ’em keen seems to be lost advice. The result is chapter after opening chapter of needy, to which the experienced reader is only going to react with contempt. There’s a terrible lack of self-confidence out there. Panic won’t relieve the conditions of the buyers’ market; only exacerbate them. Readers know the weakness of your position. They’ve passed the groaning tables at the front of the shop. They’ve heard all your desperate lines. They’ve seen you do the little dance. What else can you show them? Even as they ask they’re walking on by, looking for someone who knows the product but has the dignity not to oversell it.

first footing

Here’s a little bit from the new novel–

Wet days, he stayed inside, listening to the rain on the river. He watched Netflix, or scrolled through his emails, among which he would often find one from Victoria Nyman. Victoria had made good her threat to leave London. “Well, it’s done,” she wrote. “Goodbye Dalston. I took only what I could get into the little car. Everything else went into storage. As you can imagine, it was goodbye to the priceless antique carpets and family silver.” Or, sent from her phone: “Help! Lost in the Midlands again!” She approached the whole business as obliquely as the rest of her life. But she was making friends, she said: she was enjoying herself at last. She was cleaning two old chairs with white spirit and “linseed oil the colour of Lagavulin”. It was a running commentary. Shaw looked forward to each new installment, but always felt he had missed a pivotal message. Where had she actually gone? What was she doing now?

“Anyway,” she wrote, “Like all the other losers, I cashed out for the provinces. Lots of love. Hope you are enjoying your fish, and that, just as importantly, the fish is enjoying you.”

In fact, he had decided to give it to his mother.

The reasons for this he would have found difficult to explain. If you picked the fish up and encouraged the streetlight to angle off its hand-etched scales, it seemed more Deco than Peru, more 1930s than nineteenth century; to confuse matters further, the hallmarks were Spanish. A tiny bashed pentagram indicated, so Google advised him, silver of .915 purity. These failures of alignment between the facts of the fish and Victoria’s narrative of it only seemed to echo a deeper cultural disconnect. There was a curious, halting feel to its aesthetic–as if the artist, in the attempt to kitschify the ethnic product of one culture, had stumbled on evidence of a completely different culture hidden inside it. Under the lamplight the movements of its cleverly-articulated body fell just short of sinuous.

It was too like a fish. Its rubbery lips and accusing blue eyes dismayed him, especially when he woke in the night, disoriented by the noise from the room next door.

–happy New Year.

this is late but I’m not apologising

Despite the growing sense that we might have an actual Left again, politically 2015 was one of the darkest years I can remember. Not because of any specific incident, although there have been plenty, but because of the feeling you had of the Tories steadily & blatantly rolling us back on a broad front to our 1850s future–the return of religion, nationalism, militarism, press baronage & deregulated business, first creeping and stealthy, now open & determined. Personally it’s been equally weird. I had a couple of blocked arteries cleared by angioplasty in March, at the London Chest Hospital. That was a trip. You’re awake the whole time & the team wear what appears to be urban-camouflaged radiation protection. Thanks, guys–I’m saying that from the heart. Thanks also to the nurses and physios of the Royal Shrewsbury Cardio Rehab unit, who got me into good enough shape to walk up Snowdon four months later on my 70th birthday (during which I threw a fit of such absurd bad temper I want to apologise deeply to everyone involved). It’s been an interesting experience, a noticeable wake-up call and I got a good little short story out of it. Optimism can lead you up some depressing paths though. Don’t, for instance, look for the short story collection any time soon. I refer you to the publishing industry on that one. As a result, for the next year at least, if you want to actually buy volume fiction, you might be better transferring your attentions to another author. I can heavily recommend Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood. Indeed, for the best novel I read in 2015, it was a toss-up between Perry’s intriguingly attenuated Gothic and Lucy Wood’s pastoral haunt, Weathering. Running them close, & the best novel I had for review in 2015: A Cure for Suicide, Jesse Ball. I also enjoyed Amy Hempel’s short fiction, scoured out to a whisper in Reasons to Live; Katharine Faw Morris’s equally eroded but blunter short novel, Young God; Bodies of Light by Sara Moss; Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox; Dave Hutchinson’s dryly pertinent sequel to Europe in Autumn, Europe at Midnight; the fine, quiet Clade by James Bradley; & Richard Beard’s beautifully engineered Goldsmith’s Prize contender The Acts of the Assassins. Best autobiography, Jonathan Meades’ Museum Without Walls, although if My Brilliant Friend were to be rebadged, Elena Ferrante would leave him in the dust–slow to start, gripping by the end. Best “travel book” (far & away the wrong term but it will have to do): Norman Lewis’s humane, wry Voices of the Old Sea. It was a full year for re-reads, & for catching up on books that everyone else read when they were eight, including the immensely powerful Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr. I haven’t quite understood why the rediscovery of Lionel Davidson is focussed so specifically on Kolymsky Heights, which always struck me as a bit threadbare compared to his classic thriller The Rose of Tibet. Books I loathed, mainly because their humour seems founded on an unbreakable smugness: 10.04 by Ben Lerner; the whole of David Sedaris. I thought of using Miranda July’s The First Bad Man to bulk out that list of shame, but in the end decided to leave it off because I found its conclusion genuinely upsetting. Nonfiction: disappointed by The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford, and Susan Neiman’s Why Grow Up?–both of which promised insight into ideas that really interest me but proved superficial. I washed the taste of failure away with George F’s rebarbative and in the end heartbreaking memoir of London squatting, Total Shambles (published by one of the liveliest of the UK’s new small publishers, Influx Press, who also do the comprehensive and mind-blowing Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson). Nonfiction book of the year, though, would be David Winters’ collection of reviews and essays, Infinite Fictions, the introduction to which alone contains more interesting ideas about writing & reading than most entire books.