the m john harrison blog

Category: landscape

some basically insoluble mystery

Sand came up like a fog from the beach and when I next looked he was gone.

I studied his business card. “Gift Company,” I read.

What had he offered us? I only knew it was unsuitable and wrong. But sometimes, now, when I look through the notebook in which I wrote all this down, and the dust in its creases — just blown from mainland Africa to make a beach in the Atlantic Ocean — I wish we had accepted.

Again, perhaps we did accept. This is how he made you feel. As if there was some residue, some basically insoluble mystery behind or beneath or in some way prior to the rubbishy white hotels, beach bars and endless Cambios. As if even Playa los Americas, one of the trashiest places on earth, had some secret nothing to do with cheap stereos, expensive leather goods and English beer. Something you can sense where a brand new road runs out suddenly in builders’ waste and prickly pear; or at the top of a low hill, in some unfinished concrete building that looks like a multistory car park; or in the amused eyes of the stray dogs of the seafront.

“Gift Company,” we read. Perhaps we did accept.

from “GifCo”, 1997.

country matters

The bothy, a long single-storey wooden structure which had once housed the unmarried male servants of the local fox hunt (an institution known in its heyday as “the Ampney”), stood in the middle of a field next to a few courses of brick and an overgrown cobbled yard. It was a shed, really, already cold in the afternoon, its untreated cement floors polished by decades of use. There was a kitchen at one end, a storage unit full of rusting bed frames and plastic-wrapped supermarket pallets of dog-food at the other. Between them, five or six empty rooms opened off a narrow windowless passage lighted by a single twenty watt bulb. To the extent that he had any, the boy had moved his belongings into the kitchen, where it was relatively warm. Two shelves held packets of cereal, tins of baked beans and 8%-proof lager. A single bed was pushed up against the wall in one corner. “I don’t need much,” he said. “I was never much for things.” There was a paraffin heater but no kettle. He made tea using lukewarm water straight from an ancient Creda heater mounted on the wall above the sink and paid his rent directly to “them down the fields”, who had acquired the bothy in some cash-free transaction he didn’t understand, and who sometimes dragged a bed into one of the other rooms for weekend use.

“It’s cheap enough,” he said.

The only contemporary thing in the kitchen was a reconditioned laptop from the early 2000s, wired into the overhead light socket through a brownout-protector. “It’s all in here,” he said, with a kind of shy irony: “My life.” He showed as much pride in the machine as in his uploads to YouTube. These unsteady, ill-lit glimpses, caught on a pocket camcorder, didn’t even seem cruel, only difficult to interpret. Jittery ellipses and smears of whitish light appeared and disappeared suddenly in a black rectangle. They picked out a hedge, a patch of long grass in a field, a fence post at an odd angle. Something zigzagged into the light and out of it again. Something else turned and turned and vanished suddenly into a hedge. At the end of each clip there was the boy, an ethereal smile on his face, holding up dead rabbits by their ears. Once, the dogs put up a deer, which stared at them then walked slowly out of camera. He had set some of the videos to contemporary pastoral music, others to thirty-year-old Death Metal. Watching them galvanised him all over again, the way a passing scent had once galvanised his dogs. He sat on the bed next to Anna. There was nowhere else to sit. She could feel him trembling with excitement. “What do you think ?” he asked her. ”What do you think of that!”

Once she had got over her distaste, Anna felt bored. She was glad when he turned off the computer and with a smile half diffident, half sly, pushed her down. “Let me get these jeans off you,” she said. She laughed. “They could do with a wash.” And later: “You’re hurting me a little bit.” He went on without seeming to hear and soon she had forgotten, the way you forget the creak and bang of the bed or the people coming and going in the corridor outside a hotel room. To fuck at all is a blessing. He wasn’t Tim Waterman, but he wasn’t Michael Kearney either, and he got hard again as quickly as most boys.

Anna fell asleep. When she woke the bothy was cold and the boy was standing naked by the window gazing out across the fields towards the village. The light had begun to fade. Wisps of mist were already coming up over the river. He’d had enough for the moment, she could see. His back, whiter and thinner than she had expected, seemed vulnerable, illuminated from within. Anna watched him a minute or two, then gathered her clothes and began to get dressed. When she thought the time was right, she said:

“I’ve got some work I need doing.”

The boy made a movement with one shoulder, a shrug or perhaps a wince. He wasn’t looking for work, he said. He had enough work.

“What kind of work is it ?” he asked.

It wasn’t much, she said. It was just some painting.

He had enough of that kind of work, the boy said.

“I need someone to look at my bathroom,” Anna said. “I don’t live far. If you called later in the week, you could do the work I need.”

He moved his shoulder again and kept looking out of the window. “Those dogs of mine were company til the grey hare got across them.” Anna, receiving this as “grey hair”, had no idea what he meant. “That spoiled everything. I could talk to them until then.” As she was leaving he turned round and said, “I’ll come and see you though ? I’ll be coming to see you ?”

Anna touched his arm and smiled.

“Put your clothes on,” she said. “It’s cold in here.”

The lane outside had filled with mist, yet if you looked directly upward you could see the stars. Anna turned towards Wyndlesham, walking as briskly as she could. Once or twice she raised her arms in the air, or smiled for no reason. She wondered what had really happened to the dogs. Those lovely, lovely animals. Perhaps he’d sold them. Perhaps he’d just grown tired of them. I can’t imagine what Marnie will make of him, she thought: although it’s none of her business. She looked for her phone, couldn’t find it; stopped suddenly, brought both hands to her mouth and laughed. I can’t believe myself, she thought. When she looked back, the bothy seemed to hang without support in the gathering dusk. Everything it represented was history. Since the banking meltdown of 2007, the stable-block itself–built by John Ampney in the late 18th Century from locally-sourced brick and pantile and not then intended to house the hunt–had tracked closely the declining economic curve: redevelopment, first as prestige office space, then as a paintball “shoot house”; a decade of squatting and abandonment; finally, annexation by the local authority as Kent and Sussex struggled to contain thousands of Chinese economic refugees washing up in the old Cinque Ports; after which it had been allowed to fall down.

–from Empty Space, 2012

Tuesday already has a waxy surface, as if they applied some very modern coating to it at about half past seven this morning. Look across the valley at Workhouse Copse, the wind and the late March sun are a kind of laminar flow around everything, a fixative made of air. It reminds me of some way of landscape painting but I can’t remember whose. I come back from a walk full of ideas but feeling rearranged in some way I can’t make use of. I’ve experienced that feeling a lot recently.

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.

DSCF6409

broceliande

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.

preserved

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

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