the m john harrison blog

Month: May, 2019

landscape

Elsewhere, stands of scrub had overgrown the old walls to make intimate sunken bays floored with turf. They looked like rooms in the intimacy of the western sun. You felt instantly calm. You felt instantly at home, until what you thought was a chalk bank, cut deeply by the footpath, revealed ends of brick. It was all going back to the earth. Landscape as a metaphor for the constructed had met & become tangled with the metaphor of the built environment, & they had collapsed into one another. It made you think about the sorts of things that architects said at the beginning of the last century, about the good effect of the right architecture on people’s lives. The sense that people would be cared for by the architects themselves, & architecture be a way of replacing the accidents of the vernacular, the disorderly provisions of the natural world. Then, as you walked further up the hillside, everything opened out again suddenly to wide re-entrants grass-glowing in the sunlight, opened out to the long ridges dotted with isolated hawthorns and patches of burnet rose. The wind opened everything out and moved it along.

(June 2008)

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urban vertical

Orange overalls daubed with sealants hang from a loose cable at the back of the power-tool room. From there you go up in a lift like a ribbed steel coffin smelling faintly of disinfectant. Roof access: pull-down steel ladder, counterweighted trap door. The drop is set up from ring bolts placed at regular intervals along the flat roof, the load spread over two or three bolts with clove-hitches. These bolts were part of a suspension-system for window cleaning cradles, unused because it didn’t get the approval of the insurance companies. Lightning conductors: a flat copper strip runs all the way round the parapet; more conventional rods are placed at the corners. When a storm is approaching, these begin to vibrate palpably. Because the ropes run across the copper strip, this is a good time to get off the drop for a bit. An unimpeachable tranquillity overtakes you once you’re over the parapet of the building. Nothing can harm you now. The wind hits you like a wall, then dies away & there you are, hanging above the trees, cars, old men walking between the blocks, a bull terrier fighting with a broom, women pushing babies in prams, cars like toys–the whole estate laid out below you like the architect’s model it once was. The ropes trail away. Freedom. Freedom from everything. A man unloading something from a van glances up briefly in surprise. Trees which look like coral in the sun. You hang there relaxing after the tension of getting over the parapet. Balconies: kitchen chairs, mops, rubbish in black bags, crates of empty bottles. One of the balconies flooded with two inches of rainwater. As you go down, the wind picks up 90 feet of trail rope, blows it round the corner of the block, where it tangles round a satellite dish. The same gust knocks you ten feet to one side & off balance so that you have to hook one foot under a balcony rail at about the level of your chest to anchor & reorient yourself. You sit patiently twitching a loop of rope until it’s disentangled & you can drop again. Underwear dances suddenly above you over the balcony. A window opens. A hand appears, to throw out dust or crumbs. You can’t see who is attached to it. You look out over the man-made lake, a kind of Brutalist reservoir now terminally polluted by a sewer-burst. It used to support all sorts of activities, even windsurfing. Now four or five men set out across it very slowly in a small boat–huddled, cold-looking, perhaps collecting samples of the polluted water. The wind takes all the vigour out of them.

(long ago)

You’re writing a sentence and recognise that whatever lies behind it has tipped up everything ten degrees to the horizontal, with washed-out colours and strange old fashioned pictorial values of looking into a mirror, in which you see your own back only to realise it belongs to someone else. For any writer it is the best way to start the day. It will happen even in, say, a book review. This is a way of speaking, obviously: this substrate, this landscape or substance is both there and not there. You understand that in conversion to text, something will be lost. It will undergo some rationalisation. But try not to renege on it, because in the end it’s all you’ve got.

the library

For some years a sub-basement beneath the hotel’s parking facility was used to store texts generated by the guests. These, ranging from thin volumes of verse to literary horror novels the thousand pages of which might be read in any order, were discovered in predictable circumstances: an immaculately tidy room with fifty years of stored nail clippings & a mysteriously opened window; urgent written or recorded warnings against reading or even turning the pages of the manuscript; the death, wandering-off or unexplained evaporation of the writer in circumstances which suggested they too had been an item in a text. During the pre-war period, the Theory Cadre threw open this library three times a year, but though its contents drew visitors from most major universities, no scholarship emerged & in May 1946 the sub-basement, along with the passage that leads to it, was sealed.Elements of the Closed Architectonics Committee of the Theory Cadre visit Le Tourniquet, circa 1930.

From “The Theory Cadre”, You Should Come With Me Now

orpheus in the underland

There are so many good books around at the moment. Will Eaves’ Murmur, obviously, which won the Wellcome prize a few days ago, a triumph not just for the author but for Charles Boyle’s CBEditions, one of the smallest publishers in Britain. The Dollmaker by Nina Allen, reviewed here. Sandra Newman’s glitteringly imaginative time story, The Heavens. Coming soon: Homing, by Jon Day, a calm, artful meditation on home and returning, navigation and orientation, which, in addition, will leave you knowing everything you always wanted to know about the Columbidae; Will Wiles’s rebarbative Plume (also, in a sense, bird-oriented); Helen Mort’s Black Car Burning, also, in a sense, about home, as the place you structure out of the things you do; and Salt Slow by Julia Armfield, her debut collection.

Then there’s the Underland, which opened its maw this week.

Every time he writes, Robert Macfarlane performs several extraordinarily deft acts of focus, by which he interleaves layer upon layer of landscape and mindscape. At the same time he never fails to give you the sense that the book you are reading has self-assembled from its own imaginary, which is in turn composted and churned from the substance of the world and his relations with it. Even if he only thought about things, and wrote them down, Macfarlane would be a significant, persuasive writer—he has perfect control of the skill, or art, or quality of mind Brian Dillon described in Essaysim. But Macfarlane has been there too, and looked, and this is what he saw; and this is what he did; and this is what emerged from the experience. This is what it means to be a contemporary landscape writer. Macfarlane made the book, you understand, with its cunning millefeuille of themes and imagery, deep human history, cycles of politics, poetry and myth: but you also understand that it developed under its own impetus, out of the deep relations of the things of the world. Or, in the case of Underland, the things under the world: from its deep time geological underpinnings, up through layer after labyrinthine layer of cultural and economic connection, to the shallow scabrous subsurface litter of the things we know and are trying to forget—the things our species is trying to hide and hide from—the things we’re burying as we bury ourselves alive.

“While writing Underland,” he said in the Guardian recently, “I have come to think of claustrophobia as one of the distinctive experiences of the Anthropocene: a sense of time and space running out; of being in the grip of Earth forces triggered by human actions but exceeding human control…” Underland takes us inside that experience, and is a genuinely frightening catabasis as a result. But Macfarlane keeps singing to the end and gets us back into the light.

in real life, postscript

If you’re interested in the epistemology, phenomenology, and existentialist issues of adventure, and you like science fiction too, you couldn’t do better than read a novel called Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys. It is a much less woolly and more concise analysis of ”exploratory values” than either Roadside Picnic or Stalker, and preceded both. Aesthetically, I prefer the latter two, obviously (and I am aware of Budrys’ problematics, so please don’t @ me). But he makes his points—about exploration and the learning curve–in a more clinical manner than the Strugatsky Brothers or Tarkovsky, while artfully using the metaphor they rediscovered to do double duty: his set-up also allows him to examine the repetition-compulsions on which risk sports are founded. (Also worth a look in that context is the movie Flatliners, in which, as in Rogue Moon, killing yourself repeatedly becomes both the exploratory method and the basis for a game.)

in real life

Along with the imminent publication of Rob Macfarlane’s masterpiece Underland, this retweet by Andrew Male reminded me of something. I’ve always been fascinated by the praxis and professionalism of cavers. Especially cave divers. A friend of mine gave up climbing to do that activity for a while. He supplied me with some fine anecdotal material. In the late 1970s I had written part of a sci-fi/horror novel in which a team of contemporary cavers and climbers, prospecting the Irish karst for new routes in their separate disciplines, rediscovered the remains of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. Their subsequent exploration of the associated geology would have had all the predictable results and in addition allowed me to make a critique both of the Hodgson novel and Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls”. It was also my idea to catch the reader up with contemporary caving and climbing techniques and attitudes. (The “exploratory value” would be seen being absorbed into the new values of risk sport, for instance, a transition later touched on in Nova Swing and Empty Space.) I dropped the idea because it seemed too ordinary, too direct and too glib. All that’s left, apart from perhaps ten thousand words of yellowing draft, is the short story “The Ice Monkey”, which I cut out of it. “The Ice Monkey” started me off in a completely different direction and led to Climbers. I stopped trying to literalistically incorporate my real-life interests and experiences into fantasy fiction (see Tomb the Dwarf’s solo of the first pitch of Medusa, Ravensdale, or Alstath Fulthor’s trail-run up from Hadfield via Yellow Slacks up on to Bleaklow, across the Woodhead and then down by Tintwhistle Low Moor in A Storm of Wings) and instead began to let the two kinds of content and technique blur together, in search of what the result could tell me. You can see that immediately you look at the stuff. You can also see that I became happier and more comfortable with the way I was doing things. You can call these very self-aware metafictional explorations of the exploratory value and its inevitable structures “the Weird” if you like. I call it being the kind of writer I started to be in 1979.