the m john harrison blog

Month: March, 2019

advice

Whatever else you do when you go out in the world, you will remember to do this, won’t you? Deal with an ambiguity by concentrating on one of its meanings and acting as if you hadn’t noticed the other. It’s an such an effective rhetorical technique, dear, because it takes command of the context of any subsequent exchange. And you can do the same with every kind of complex thought! I promise! Just act as if it isn’t one, and that will always work for you.

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Some of the post-industrial landscape of the new book–limestone quarrying above the Severn gorge.

what’s the story

The town, with its undecodable medieval topography and commanding position above the river, had done well out of sheep; then out of brewing; and finally out of coal. Now, like most of those old places, post-colonial, post-industrial and–in the sense that its past had now become its present–post-historical, it was curating a collection of original burgage plots, timber-framed structures and quaintly squalid street names. It had been pleased with itself for seven hundred years. Short ate an artisanal sandwich at the Optimum Joy Cafe Bistro and Wellbeing Centre. Later he became lost in a system of alleys between Grope Counte Lane and Piscina Yard, from which he debouched suddenly into the long grounds of Old St Marge’s, where he sat on a bench in the warm sunshine reading heritage brochures. For a thousand years, he learned, one sacred building or another had occupied the site–until 1802, when the church had collapsed mysteriously into its own crypt to leave only the melted-looking stone of the Lady Chapel, at which he now stared. Later he went back to his hotel and phoned in his report, “Nothing much going on.”

Some stories have such an excessive sentimentality that as soon as you’ve finished writing them you’re ashamed & wish you hadn’t; in fifteen years time you see their value. Other stories feel hard & pure at time of writing but fifteen years later seem so smug, wilful & aggressive-defensive that you’re full of shame & wish you hadn’t even started them. & some stories written fifteen years ago seem to have been written by someone older & a lot less lively than you are now, which is a puzzle.

Published as Your Skin Is Not So Tough, April 2012

cultural heritage

When you’re young you collect objects that are less mementos than experiential trophies. They don’t–they can’t–really contain the significance you invest in them. By the time you’re old, the surviving examples have put on some weight in that respect. But you’ve lost interest in them by now; you’re someone different and they’re just clutter, and the experiences they represent are another kind of clutter. Somehow, you think (if you think about it at all), you missed some middle stage, when they might have been genuinely representative and full of warmth. Then at a certain time of day the light falls on a shelf on the first floor landing of a house a lifetime and several lives away, in such a way as to pick out a small lacquered hexagonal box. It catches you by surprise. It looks expensive but it wasn’t. Behind the background tinnitus and general audio interference of age you hear, faintly, John Cooper Clarke recite the words some bric-a-brac from the knick-knack rack. He’s moving away into the distance, pushing forward the way he always was, examining the difference between dignity and dignitas; the cool older brother–or maybe the uncle or father–you didn’t know at the time you needed.

Why such a terror of the fictionality of fiction? Relax. There’s no need to feel ashamed. No one is going to find you out. They already know. That’s the contract. The whole job is to make a pretence. If you can write, you can get the reader to immerse. There’s no need to be so desperate to encourage suspension of disbelief. Voice will do it. A couple of details will do it. There’s no need to present yourself as a holiday destination. No one really believes these alien planets you invented are actually there; to be honest, no one really believes this bus station you drew so painstakingly from life is actually there. No one thinks the worse of you because you are just another human being telling a story. That’s why we look up suddenly in delight in the pub and say, “You’re having me on!” I’d rather pile up real facts to reveal something evidently unreal than pile up invented facts to make something unreal seem real.

critical essays, ed Williams & Bould

This is a thing now. Thanks to everyone involved, especially those involved behind the scenes. Includes the full text of Tim Etchells’ dazzling keynote piece, and an unusually straightforward, almost completely unencrypted introduction by me. “If you’re not born in an engineering town, you may be born in a town where the population get their living from Heritage tourism. They glue themselves to a rock & sieve the water for nutrients. They plan no escape. They plan no amputation. You wonder if they had energy when they were young, or if their projects were falling into decay even then. You wonder if you’re like them, if the people who come in your house think similar things about you.” Details and pre-ordering here.

victoria’s cat

“I hate the noise saucepans make,” Victoria told the cat. “People always know you’re at home when they hear the saucepans clanging about in the kitchen.”

The cat stared up at her.

“You don’t say much, do you?” she said.

Later she went out to the Spar and bought two tins of catfood.

“We’ll try you on this,” she said. “But if you get expensive, off you go.” After the cat had eaten and licked around its face a bit, she picked it up and took it to the back door. “And out you go at night,” she said.

The cat miaowed at the door until she let it back in.

Originally blogged April 17 2015, as “victoria adopts”. The cat didn’t make it into the book, probably a good thing because the end I had planned for it was unhappy.