the m john harrison blog

Category: landscape

Fifty years looking out of trains at night. The lines of lights, the distant neon, the way everything is laid out across a landscape you can’t see but which is somehow implied along with all its concomitant failures. Lights stacked on top of one another. Lights outlining buildings. Traffic lights glimpsed going through their cycle at empty junctions. Motorway boards. The tragic patina of light falling into a box room or a ground mist. The lives lived in it appear just like real lives. I don’t know what I mean. What can you mean, stationary again in some brownfield site on the edge of Wolverhampton, some nowhere, eleven thirty at night, late home again to an empty house?

‘“to thaw” is to ungive

“There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a distant echo. Nature will not name itself. Granite doesn’t self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject.” Robert Macfarlane in the Guardian today, as exact as ever. I read him & I think, “No contest.” I’ve no idea what I mean by that, except that at his best he somehow obviates the collision–the war–between prose and things: even when, as here, he’s confronting it, admitting it (both admitting to it and inviting it in). This is everything you want from an essayist and landscape writer. I can’t wait to read Landmarks.

DSCF8351Steaming off the woodchip on the top floor landing, C found a handy map of the near future, etched into the old plaster. If you adjust the resolution, and look a little to the left of the fold & near the bottom, you can even see us, paying out more money to have this feature fixed.



The woods are warmer than the bare dip-slope. The coppice mud is poached and rich, grey clays washed out of old pits. On the steeper slopes each winter, one more beech levers itself out of the earth–which is revealed as granular, the colour and consistency of concrete–and leans into the catch of its neighbour. The power station sends up cooling steam. Labradors wrap themselves around the solitary runner. Exit the woods, fields fall away to mist a mile or two miles off: in the mist houses and very pale sun. If I knew what bird this was, I would tell you.


Flowers beneath the surface of a moorland pond. Images a little dulled, star shape, white with just a hint of yellow. A stillness–a brittleness, you suspect–that makes them look as if they’ve been turned to stone by some process which has left them more not less fragile than when they were above the surface. Were they ever above it? I have no idea. Is there some flower that blooms beneath water, 1400 feet up, in Britain in a mild winter? They have their leaves. Except for this curious preservation, except for the incongruity of their position five inches below the perfect cold surface, they look quite ordinary, like any flower in summer. What am I looking at? Does anyone know? Does anyone know if I’m here, or if perhaps I’m down there too, six months preserved or alternatively still alive?

long mynd

-1Photo: Cath Phillips

voices in the hills

Attempts to deliver outside as inside, to convert the landscape into a kind of built environment and our interactions with it into a confusion of messages and mission statements. Interest groups that deliver the outdoors to us are not the outdoors itself but by mediating the experience they turn it from an interaction with the outdoors into an interaction with them. Structural intrusions into the landscape market limiting messages about how it can be used. Loosely-associated entertainments draw a family demographic, playing into the hands of direct commercial exploitation. Landscape as backdrop, as ever. Signage & architecture intrude, multiply and move steadily towards the spectacular. 2050, the thing has become the picture of the thing, the plan for the thing: “Wind, stones, light trapped in the fast cold air along the hillside. Edwardian sunrise. We leave the bunkhouse hopeful, return tired from a day of voices in the hills, the hard winter crossing of the Interpretation Room of the Ogwen Visitor Centre.”


However complete a fauxthentication is, it can’t actually be a world–-therefore the criticism, “This novel is still not fully & properly fauxthenticated” is always possible. The constant bolstering of the “world” constantly reveals it not to be one, ie reveals it never to be complete the way the world is. This seems to say more about the limits of writing & the act of suspension of disbelief (an immersion which can clearly be brought about in other ways) than it does about the actual need for a world to seem to be present in front of the reader. Also, it strikes me as a bit mad to be a fiction writer if you have to struggle so desperately to pretend you’re not. There’s some kind of guilt trip behind that. Fauxthentication seems like an attempt to deny your position as someone who makes things up.

getting out of it

I started hillwalking in the early 1970s because as soon as I got near a hill I could relax. In fact I couldn’t relax any other way. I’m not overstating this. It was a feeling that might be lost later in the walking day for any number of reasons, but for me the venue itself–the upland outdoors–acted like a tranquiliser & an antidepressant. Later in the day–whatever had happened in the interrim: you might get soaked, you might get lost, you might get blisters, you might experience a little low-wattage sublime–tiredness took over & provided another kind of chemical cosh. This never worked for me in towns & cities, or in lowlands. The built environment offered an anxious trudge, a failed yet persistent attempt at leaving yourself–or more likely the venue–behind. Exurban lowlands I just found uninteresting–I’m not saying that’s true now, & I’d rather walk on agricultural land, which I hate with a passion because it’s so clearly owned, than not walk at all. It’s the sense of ownership/not ownership, in the end, that makes the difference to me. I know rationally that I’m not “free” on access land: but at least, for the moment, no one can stop me being there.


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