the m john harrison blog

secrets of the gardens

This garden is paved and narrow but crowded with shrubs, mainly box, yew and privet, many of which have been carefully sculpted into cones, spheres, cylinders. None of them are much taller than a person. Distributed among them are some benches; a replica Edwardian streetlight; two small circular netted ponds with raised stone sides, containing fish; and an accurately coloured plastic rendering of a heron. The topiary forms are not Platonic, or even properly geometrical. They have a raggedness of outline. Their shapes are not quite right. The cylinders are tubby and their walls inconsistently vertical. A cone resembles an upended turnip. To the eye it will always have an organic nature but not its own nature. It will always be a reference to, a picture of, some other form. Yet sometimes, on a dull day, when a shaft of light strikes between the still shapes and picks out the plastic heron, the bird can seem almost real; observed like this, from the window of a neighbouring second-floor window, the whole becomes less like an illustration in an early 1950s children’s fantasy than something presiding and real.


They always look the same, tired round the eyes, too old for their age, strange haircuts. They’re dressed in clothes that would have carried information forty years ago but don’t say anything now. They look like the victims of some political process to which, if you aren’t careful, you’ll be introduced whether you like it or not. When ghosts slip away from the crowd at the base of the statue, they first make a little eye-contact. They slip away visibly. They want you to know that they know that you spotted them. Before they go they want you to know that we’re all in this together.

Notebooking for Climbers in a moorland car park, July 1983: “…another man, bare-chested and raw-shouldered from the sun, was trying to fill a plastic container from the little dried-up stream, while his wife knelt on the gravel looking in through the driver’s door of their hand-painted maroon and yellow car. Meanwhile in the field above I could see a farmer going round with a spade, banging the grass at carefully chosen places none of which looked different from any other. Some pages from a sex magazine blew about in the sun. I got out my pink blanket and my volume of John Middleton Murry’s letters, took off my t shirt, and joined them.”

The refusal to site fiction within the epistemological and ontological biases of Hollywood-derived narratology & MBA structural definitions–

Avoid formalist demonstrations of non-formalist propositions.

Obstruct Pavlovian reading: if you give one reward for Pavlovian reading, deny the others. Reject editorially driven overcueing/explication: however it looks at the outset, to enter the story should require a one-shot paradigm or episteme to be constructed by the reader.

What you see is what you get: what the character does is the character of the character, character is not a blueprint out of which the characters’ acts inevitably arise. The story is nothing more than what happens in front of the reader: the story is not a blueprint of motives & causalities out of which its events arise with a satisfying inevitability.

Never use the word “trope”, even pejoratively. In anti-formalist fiction there is no such thing as a trope & everything happens as if it has never happened before.

Favour: one-sided analogies, incomplete & false correlatives, oblique & false or undecodable epihanies. Symbols should represent emotional states only partially disclosed. Favour intense “worldbuilding” in incomplete, mismatched or out-of-focus contexts. Incomplete or broken structures & forms offer the story as a failed or abandoned archeological excavation of itself. Apply tonal variation at will; shift between registers at will. Irony saturated to the degree that it becomes difficult to tell if irony is present. Miss all beats.

No “subversion”, only vandalism.

the heritage

Kitchenly Mill is the idyllic East Sussex retreat of Marko Morrell, guitar god with 70s rock band Fear Taker. It is a seriously moated Jacobethan mansion, with Arts and Crafts restorations and contemporary architectural additions – “air bridges” that connect the main house to its outliers. It’s a work of love, and clearly an object of love for Morrell’s pre-fame sidekick, Crofton Clark, who narrates. Alan Warner’s ninth novel, like his earlier work in Morvern Callar or The Sopranos, layers together music, culture and individual psychology so they seem to become a single, composite material; and it does so under a biblical epigraph – Luke 16.2: “Give an account of thy stewardship.” If Clark loves Kitchenly, he worships Morrell, whose Fender makes the “mighty noise of consequence and of economic empowerment”. He’s been around Fear Taker in one capacity or another since the beginning, latterly deriving his entire identity from the association. The changing world at Kitchenly, and Crofton’s place in it, is the central concern of a novel that begins in the English uncanny valley, moves through an unforgiving comedy of errors, and culminates in fierce acts of realism. My review of Kitchenly 434 in the paper Guardian today, or here.

the uninevitability of the rhetorically inevitable

Nothing is inevitable. This amazing thing you’re trying to sell—this idea, this concept, this techno item, this world-changing bill of goods–whatever it is—doesn’t have to be the case, except for those who are already obsessed by it & are making rhetoric to show why you can’t walk away, so that they can make money & walk away. I’ve seen this happen in cycles all my life. It’s never had a good outcome. The inevitable new was always crap. The inevitable new has always been Tono Bungay. We could have turned our backs on it any time, just by walking through the initially fragile discourse fences that now surround it & harden & become so resistant that we are going to have to put in a lot more effort to escape.

stochastic resonance & electric fish

Metaphysics: a brand that has sheltered a billion crazed subjectivities & subjective epistemes, emerging from scarified metaphors, mad culty insights, wonky observations, unbalanced personal alchemies & dogmatically institutionalised intuitions about the shapes of things & how they bolt one to another in the service of human “existence”. I love it all & I especially love the imagery that spills from it in torrents. It’s a whole Woolworths of pick n mix. I love it for all the reasons I love physics, but I don’t mistake the one for the other as a description of how things work; nor am I really interested in a particular metaphysics, or the history of metaphysics as a singular discipline or single object of study. I’m just on the lookout for a glittery concept, a slippery notion, or a deeply debatable cognitive structure I can make fiction with. What I want is to stumble over ideas that have sudden hi-res qualities and instant impact. An idea that has that kind of force, & that immediately charms me by entangling itself with metaphors I’ve already made, will find itself in a month or so part of the individual pathology of a short story about something else entirely. I’m a user of metaphysics, not even an amateur. I’m a user of physics too. I’ve not been the same person, let alone the same writer, since I discovered that a percentage of white noise injected into the input can, counterintuitively, amplify frequencies previously too faint to hear. Culturally, writers & readers operate in the same kind of noise-rich environment as electric fish. They live in a similar neurobiological arms race. Since Alastair Reynolds explained neurobiological stochastic resonance to me 20 years ago, my definition of a science fiction writer has been: someone who’s acutely aware of a concept like that even as they write something that never even mentions it.

August 2020

dynamic stress loads & the fatigue limit

In this science fiction story, the terror we’re hearing in the media is not our own. It’s the panic of a family of gangsters who know that the near future is going to get rid of them. The barely repressed anxiety—displaced as rage & tantrum—that fills the news is not fear of UK collapse, or the fear of having to live a reduced life in the coming failed state in a heated world. It’s not ourselves we’re hearing. It’s the unspoken—literally unspeakable—panic of a collapsing corporate that bought into its own propaganda centuries ago, echoing through the structure it’s built to shield and express itself. “Great” Britain was never a place. It was psycho-economic architecture for the Firm. What we hear from it now is the sound of vibration fatigue in the structure. When the Tories bet on covid, Brexit & the bonanza of disaster capitalism, they may also have brought about the collapse of one of the most stable little earners in the world after the Catholic Church.

my first days on Junkie

My first experience with William Burroughs was during a years-long obsession with low-life memoir that started when they gave me WH Davies to read at school. After Davies I went through Eric Muspratt, Orwell, Jack London, Henry de Monfreid & many more lowlifes or people who claimed to be lowlifes or experimented briefly with being lowlifes. I was on to Genet in my late teens. I bought Junkie for eight-and-sixpence in the Four Square “Olympia Press” edition in the mid 60s. It was late on in my obsession & rapidly became my favourite example. Burroughs had me at “made the doctor for a ten-grain script”, p22, because by then I loved any kind of jargon & trade language too. I still own that volume, which had the last really decent cover I remember on a UK book until CBeditions and Fitzcarraldo began publishing. It can’t be read now without falling apart, so I keep a reading copy on my Kindle along with the other lowlife greats like Treasure Island & The Wind in the Willows. I didn’t take so completely to his later books, although I’ve read most of them at least once. Later I got into TE Lawrence’s The Mint; Oxbridge travel writing & its legacy; and, by a different route, into trade and sport memoir. That’s the mud from which Climbers emerged. In my mind, Junkie will always be the contemporary summing up of all those kinds of books that promise to let you into a closed, outlandish world. But something like Tales of a Rat-Hunting Man is pretty good too. & so is Jon Day’s Cyclogeography.

the rocks

One of the places that acted as a developmental node in British rock climbing after the second world war was a sandstone crag called Harrison’s, not far from Groombridge in Kent. It had all the qualities you associate with that medium. The holds fell off or wore down easily. If you weren’t balancing up a steep delicate slab covered with fine slippery sand, you were thugging your way round an overhang on rounded slopers. Its advantage was that you could drive down from London and spend an evening there in the summer. Harrison’s had been everyone’s hot date since the 1920s, but access had always been a problem. There were tensions between climbers and locals, the retired bank managers and solicitors who, though they didn’t own it, had always felt able to act as if they did. So when the land from which it outcropped came up for sale in 1958, it was bought by climbers and, after a curious and tortuous period of stewardship, eventually passed into the hands of the British Mountaineering Council. For the first time in history, the idea was, British climbers would own and manage a crag of their own. That was a time of optimism all over, in the sport and out of it. I went down there by train in the last days of compartmented rolling stock. That was a lottery. You were stuck at close quarters with whoever you found in there. I won two older ladies in genuine Hermes scarves, and they won me. My own fashion choice was jeans and a tee with the words Think Pink printed on the front, set off by a faded canvas rucksack and–I might as well admit it–a silk scarf of my own, oriental & tied as a headband: California Dirtbag by way of Yorkshire. I was pretty tan & at that time my hair and beard were black. We sat and did not really look at one another for forty minutes, me on one side of the compartent and them on the other. The train had to pass Harrison’s on its way into Eridge station, and as the rocks went past, the talk between the two women turned to the beauty of the view. “We’re so lucky to have this,” said one. The other made eye contact with me across the space between us. “Oh yes,” she said. “It used to be lovely until those rock climbers got in and spoilt everything.” That “got in” was a lesson in the grammars of territoriality. They had never owned it, but it was theirs by the complex associations of privilege; climbers had bought it, but it could never really belong to them. I understood that my kind would never inherit the earth even if we inherited it, and I often think about that.