the m john harrison blog

Month: April, 2019

anna’s adventures in norbiton

Next morning she truanted on Dr Alpert, changed trains at London Victoria and made her way down through the postal codes until, the other side of Balham, she thought she recognised the way the streets curled and dovetailed across the swell of a hill. “Orchid Nails”, read the signs outside the station: “Minty Pearls Dental Clinic”. Anna descended from the train and wandered thoughtfully along staring into the windows of empty houses. She had no plan. She favoured quiet residential avenues and a particular kind of four-bedroom mock-Tudor, with laurels and a slip of driveway to one side of its front garden. The shabbier a place looked, the more likely it was to hold her attention. By mid afternoon she thought she might be in Sydenham Hill. She had covered miles under the enamel light, trespassed on the hard standings of a dozen middle class homes. She was exhausted. Her ankles hurt. She was lost. It wasn’t the first time she had done this.

Sydenham Hill turned out, in point of fact, to be Norbiton, a place named after the suburb in an Edwardian novel. Anna sat down with a cup of tea in the station cafe and emptied her bag on to the table. It was full of the usual silt–ends of make-up, a single glove, an address book bloated with the names of people she never saw anymore, her phone with its flat battery. There were receipts folded into very small squares, foriegn coins and coins no longer in circulation. There was an old outboard computer drive: this, she took up.

It was perhaps two inches by three, with curved, organic-looking edges, its smooth dull surface interrupted at one end by a line of firewire ports–one of those objects which, new and exciting in its day, now looked as dated as a cigarette case. Michael had left it with her, along with some instructions, putting his warm hand over Anna’s–they were in a railway cafe just like this one–and urging her:

“You will remember, won’t you ?”

All she could remember now was being afraid. When you’re afraid of everything, especially each other, you have to walk away; consign each other to the world.

Anna had arrived in Norbiton between trains. She drank a second cup of tea and stared out with vague good will at the empty platform, where everything had a thick fresh coat of paint. After about twenty minutes an old man was helped into the cafe by some railway staff. He had outlived himself. His bald brown head seemed too big for his neck; his underlip, the colour of uncooked liver, drooped in exhausted surprise at finding himself still there. They sat him at Anna’s table, where he banged her feet and legs about with his stick, shoved the contents of her bag carelessly across the table towards her, and, as soon as he was settled, began eating salmon sandwiches directly from a paper bag. His hands were ropy with veins, the skin over them shiny and slack. He ate greedily but at the same time with a curious lack of interest, as if his body remembered food but he didn’t. As he ate he whispered to himself. After some minutes he put the bag down, leaned across the table and tapped Anna’s hand sharply.

“Ow,” said Anna.

“Nothing is real,” he said.

“I’m sorry ?”

“Nothing is real. Do you understand ? There are only contexts. And what do they context ?” He gave Anna an intent look; breathed heavily a few times through his mouth. “More contexts, of course!” Anna, who had no idea how to respond, stared angrily out of the window. After a moment he said, as if he hadn’t already spoken to her, “I have to get on the next train. I wonder if you would be kind enough to help me ?”

“I wouldn’t, no,” Anna said, collecting up her things.

It was almost dark when she arrived home. Marnie had left irritable messages on the answerphone. “Pick up, Anna. I’m really very cross with you. It’s not the first time you’ve let the doctor down like this.” Anna made herself an omelette and ate it in the kitchen standing up, while she rehearsed what she would say to Marnie. The last of the daylight was fading out of the sky. James the cat jumped up on to the kitchen top and begged. Absent-minded with guilt, Anna gave him more of the omelette than she had intended to.

–Empty Space, 2012


upon reading the measles statistics

I’m not interested in an embodied and localised knowledge. I had enough of it as a child in the early 1950s, among people whose top argument was, “Because I know better.” They didn’t want the NHS. They didn’t want vaccination. They didn’t want the kids that survived to waste their time on education. They didn’t want science. All sense was common sense: they were the well, and your role as a child was to drink what you were given. Anything else, from the welfare state to astrophysics, was a challenge to traditional hierarchies. After you’d tried, and had it drilled into you how worthless your fancy new ideas were, your ambition was to quickly and quietly exit their radius of control and enter the de-localised intellectual funfair of modernity, with its fantastically advanced concepts such as “abstract thought”. Your secondary ambition was to work on a politics that got shot of all that forever. That’s really what the 60s was about if you lived where I lived. It was a revolt about what kind of knowledge you could have of the world, and how you could get it. I never regretted running away from the Trump-like epistemics of postwar semi-industrialised, semi-rural England. All I regret is that we didn’t quite achieve full escape velocity and get rid of its limiting ideas forever, so they couldn’t crawl back and infect everything again. I never want to return to that nightmare, or sympathise with it, or “understand” it, or give it any more than this single paragraph of the oxygen of analysis.

shelf life

Books with thickened pages. Books that smell of a damp room with an unswept chimney. You’ll get rid of them the next house move because it will probably be the last. You don’t want a lot of books for someone else to deal with, drawing down moisture, thickening all the while. One or two you remember buying but you don’t remember why. One of them has a sentence you promised you wouldn’t forget. You’ll never write the essay that proceeds from it now. You read these books incessantly & didn’t learn one thing. They pointed in every direction but they don’t have a future without you. You imagine someone saying, “They meant such a lot to him, choose anything you like,” then, when everyone has gone, looking around at all the books still left & wondering what to do with them because the charity shops aren’t interested. You don’t want that. The fact is that books–including your own, especially your own–talk all night & you wish they’d leave you alone.

real histories

Thomas Sidney Cooper RA, 1803-1902, was so associated with paintings of cows that he became known as “Cow Cooper”. On his eightieth birthday he started the massive picture of cows you see here, completing it in six weeks. He seems to have painted it so large because he didn’t want anyone to buy it. Elsewhere this is an exemplary museum, repository of “all things stolen and stuffed”, its cabinets full of items that once had cultural significance and context but which now look sad, beaten down and really quite difficult to define. A Church of England primary school seems to have donated a mummified feline; or perhaps adopted it. You would do that out of sympathy, the instant you saw its minute teeth, though it doesn’t at all resemble a cat. There are various Victorian birds, along with their eggs, nests and environs; and, for the girls, many weapons! including “an armguard with dagger and pistols” (Madras, early 1800s), which looks like something from the cover of an astonishingly poor fantasy novel, early 1980s. An echidna is partly hidden beneath less indentifiable stuff. But then, suddenly and gloriously, these.Picture Cath Phillips

loft life

I once had two addresses. The way that came about, my friend had an empty flat he wanted to rent. When I said I might be interested he gave me the keys and told me to take a look. The flat was on the top floor of a purpose built block. There was a church at the corner and a launderette next door. There was a line of little shops. Inside it was two or three rooms a good size, with dormer windows and fitted carpet. There was a nice kitchen. A bathroom and a closet off the hall. Everyone in that building was in work. I stood there in the middle of the day and it was quiet. I stayed there for nearly an hour, standing in the different spaces, looking out the window. Then I locked the door carefully behind me and called my friend.

“I like it,” I said, “but I’m not sure.”

No one else was interested, he said. “Take as long as you like to make up your mind.”

The next day I went back and sat there for two hours. Soon, unknown to my friend, I was spending most of the day there, three or four days a week. I slept there. I had some of my mail delivered. It was calming to have this other existence and know that no one could find me unless I wanted them to. But it didn’t feel quite the same when I moved in permanently, so after about six months I opened the loft and dragged my belongings up there with a pulley and rope. Then I sublet to another friend of mine. He needed a bigger place. He had just got married, his wife was nice. I’ve lived here now for a good part of their lives. I come and go at night. I’ve listened to them fuck, eat, scream at one another. I’ve heard their two little girls grow up. I have a comfortable life, most difficulties of which turned out be easily solved.

One thing. You need to forget all the rumours you’ve heard about someone like me. Those factoids you learned watching movies in the 80s and 90s. The ideological cliches and convenient interpretations you’ve pasted on top of that as if it was the real world.

I’m not a voyeur. I’m not a stalker. I’m not the Cupboard Man. My life has been specialised, true. But am I going to descend one day from the loft and kill the family, or even leave one of them a birthday card? No. I’m not going to play cat and mouse with anyone. I’m not going to engage in a duel of wits with the police detective who’ll turn out to be cleverer–or less clever–than me in the end. I am not, in the end, going to be coloured by bleach bypass. You can forget all that. No one undergoes such inconvenience, no one lives secretly in a loft, for that. I live up here because the most extreme pleasure in life is to experience it on the edge of other lives. To be here and not be here: that’s where I’m happy. And if you think for a second you’ll realise that’s what you hate so much about me.

what you threw overboard

While you invent the book, the book reinvents you. Your life doesn’t appear to have changed, but the book is telling you it has. The book is a way of acknowledging more than one thing you already knew. Now you come to think of it, life’s been weird since you finished the last one. You couldn’t settle. You felt belittled, especially in your dreams: that’s always a conversation with the writer down inside. That thing inside knows more than you do. It catches on faster. It’s come to some understanding, it’s made some decision. Look around, there’s plenty of yourself you don’t intend to lose. But bridges are going to be burned. Not, perhaps, in one of those scary one hundred percent conflagrations of the past; but something’s got to go. Indeed, something’s already gone. Now you’re going to find out what. That’s what a book is for, finding out who you are this time.


the saturday interview

“I don’t fade, I don’t lose anything,” he says when you ask him to describe his condition. He seems happy and fit. He’s a tall man with a limp (the only sign of his accident, although he admits that he still gets tired). “It’s not a question of purchase on things. There doesn’t seem to be a down side.” This is accompanied by a rueful smile. “On the other hand, it isn’t much good for anything.” So, then, what is the experience actually like? It’s a question, you sense, that he’s often asked. The problem he has in answering it, he says, is that we allow ourselves only two possibities. “We only have the traditional guidelines: ‘A world of your own’, in which the detached ‘you’ has agency, but which contains no possibility of contact with others; or a world in which everyone else is seen, as if through glass, by an individual who has no agency: the choice between an empty world or a full one observed by a ghost.” He laughs. “But I don’t find it like that at all. I feel perfectly at home. I just have a new kind of subjectivity.” He stares out of the window for a while, as if he’s thought this through before and always come to the same conclusion. “Anyway, what are these kinds of questions to someone who can do what I can do?”

one of the best things about living in this house

instructions for a funeral

“Fistfight, Sacramento, August 1950″: two young men have a brief, savage confrontation, which for one of them leads, quietly and with small-town Springsteen stylings, to marriage with the girl who works in the drugstore. The newlyweds go on to mythologise the fight as the inciting incident of their relationship: “It was the secret of their future destiny. That’s what they liked to believe. That’s what they continued to believe for the rest of their lives.” The fight is observed hot, close up and in detail, the couple’s subsequent years from an increasing distance that makes the story somehow heartbreaking. Read the rest of my review of David Means’ new collection, Instructions for a Funeral, in the Guardian today.

One of his short stories also features in my Personal Anthology, alongside “The Same Dog” by Robert Aickman, Maeve Brennan’s “I See You, Bianca” and nine others, some you wouldn’t have predicted. Jonathan Gibbs’ project collects sharply-written recommendations by the dozen, from some very talented people. It’s a resource.

something was happening there & you never knew what it was

Every so often someone writes a spy or detective story in which they demonstrate that causal chains are never fully traceable and dependable. We’re to understand this as a subversion of storytelling’s central assumption, which is that a narrative can be both realistic and schematic. But demonstration isn’t subversion: it’s closer to celebration. All the writer has done is use orderly structures to point out in an orderly fashion that disorder exists; followed by a clever twist, mic drop and applause. Fiction like that is not subversive, it is reassuring. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, denying its own conclusions even as it drew them, produced the very opposite of the random churn it claimed to reveal. Even an interesting novel like Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Sand, while edging up to the possibility of epistemic failure, elucidates it rationally at the last; avoiding the implications of the subject matter out of a lack of faith in the idea or the reader or both.