the m john harrison blog

Category: landscape

marooned this side of heartfelt

I’m old enough to remember things that happened around 1949, although they are mostly about the weather & building sites. I don’t seem to remember myself at that age, only the things I looked at. Puddles. Careful stacks of materials. Sacks of sand. I don’t have a narrative of those places or of myself in relation to them; I’m careful not to retrofit them with one. They weren’t in cities, or even, really, in towns. They weren’t bomb sites. I wasn’t drawn to them, I already lived there. They were brand new greenbelt housing estates in Staffordshire or Warwickshire, on the perimeters of which the builders were still at work. They weren’t sites of fantasy or escape. The objects in them were fascinating because they were the objects of those places. Or they were intrinsically interesting, on a day-to-day basis, because of some quality, such as being transparent. Or frozen. Or yellow. Or having moved since I last saw them.

When we meet him, Buckmaster has been living in an old barn for a year and some months. He arrived “shoeless, over the moor from the east”. Since then he’s cleaned, repaired, caulked the gaps with anything he could find. He’s made it his own. His intention is “To be open, to be in fear, to be aching with nothingness”. This, he says, is the only life. Nevertheless, he’s not sleeping much. He dreams of a hare with human eyes. Awake, he’s hallucinating. There are patterns on the moor; and when the tourists go home at night, “All the centuries drop away, and I am in the presence of something that does not know time.” Something is coming towards him, he doesn’t know what.

–My review of Paul Kingsnorth’s new novel Beast, in the Guardian.

from empty space to stanage edge

I’ve got two slots at Edge Lit in July, it seems. For the GoH “speech” I’ll read a new story & maybe answer questions about the forthcoming short story collection & the novel in progress. For the other one, an item on writing landscape, I’ll probably do something like this–

Landscape in fiction is never just background, or you’re wasting your opportunities. Let the landscape do as much of the work of informing the reader of your intentions as possible. Entangle your ideas & meanings with the setting. Fold them into one another.

Empty Space: the Funene Golden Hour, a landscape derived from photography of the Namib coast. Ad-image pseudo-sublime. What is the difference between awe & oh wow? The reification of an aesthetic judgement, a play on the use of the term “landscape porn”. Woven into the trilogy’s general position on neoLiberal postindustrial spectacle–the transformation of real sites into sites of public art, ie leisure heritage.

Climbers: “The moment you step into a landscape it becomes another one.” But also, the gritsone edges as a kinaesthetic abacus on which you “tell” your life. To what degree–& in how many lives–has Stanage served that purpose–emotional touchstone or pivot, hermitage, site of psycho-addiction sought out at points in your life, abandoned at others–but also the sense that the gritstone landscape can in some unforgiving way abandon you & you may never be allowed to go back…

Come prepared to ask: What’s the difference, then, between a real landscape & a fictional one? & its various obvious corollaries.

who’s dead & who’s alive

Disconnected memories. Uncertainty of events and entities in their “relationship” with reality. The author positioned like Maxwell’s demon, feeling able to claim that this is the inside & that is the outside (the conscious & unconscious, the forgotten & remembered, the admissible & the inadmissible). Calculatedly inefficient filters will be placed at points of transition represented as boundaries and edgelands. The hiatus or glitch, the dropped catch or stitch between the living & the written.

cold grit

“You’d have to be mental,” Sankey said, “to go climbing in this.”

Nevertheless you can see him on the polaroid I took that afternoon, his bright orange waterproof jacket blowing out behind him like a comic book cape as he stands anxiously looking up at Normal who is stalled out halfway up the crag. The picture deteriorated in some way — perhaps because of the cold — soon after it was taken, chemical changes giving the light a dead green cast and making the rock look black and featureless. Normal seems to be pasted on to it, one arm raised wearily. The snow is the same colour as the sky, and only a row of little outcrops marks the division between the two.

These few buttresses of rough grit, heavily pebbled with quartz and perched like boulders on the skyline, are nice to come to on a summer evening, when the hang gliders lie out on the shallow slopes beneath them in the golden light like exhausted butterflies. The day I took the Polaroid we could hear each separate gust of wind building up miles away across the moor before it burst round the aretes on to us, whipped Normal’s rope out into a tight parabolic curve, and whirled off down the valley to strafe the sheep. There was snow packed into all the cracks. When we excavated it we found hard ice underneath, as shiny as solidified Superglue. Our noses ran. The wind pulled the strings of mucus out grotesquely, so that during the instant before they snapped they floated with all the elegance of spider-silk. Our fingers went numb, only to come back to life twenty or thirty feet up, at just the wrong moment, the size of bananas and throbbing with hot-aches.

Eventually Normal had to give in and come down.

“It’s no good. I can see what to do but I can’t convince myself to do it.”

His hands were curled up and broken-looking from the cold. They were bleeding where he had knocked them without knowing on the rock. He pulled his mittens on with his teeth and for a while all three of us huddled beneath a big undercut, where it was a bit warmer. But the wind got in under the lip of it and drove ice into our faces, and soon that became a misery too.

“It’s no good.”

Normal and Sankey began to pack up the gear, stuffing ropes and harnesses untidily into their rucksacks.

“It seems a bit brighter over there,” I said.

“It always seems a bit bloody brighter over there.”

–from Climbers, 1989.

a drive in the country

It’s somewhere between the late 50s & the mid 70s. A young man from the lower middle classes, English, early adopter of university education, somehow finds the money to buy a sports car. It may be something interesting or worthwhile, a Jaguar or Lotus, or it may simply be a high end MG, one of those new products just expensive enough to make you a player. Anyway, it’s enough to get him a date with a young woman a little further up the provincial class system. It’s enough to convince her. On their date, he drives her out for an evening, or he takes her for a drive after a dance, or he drives her out into the country, or to the sea for an afternoon–let’s say for convenience it’s the sea–and the car runs out of petrol, or breaks down, on an abandoned-looking stretch of B-road facing out across the estuary at some, I don’t know, gasometers or oil tanks or whatever, on the other shore. There’s no phone box near. There are, of course, no mobile phones or anything like that. In the silence that ensues, you can actually hear the wind whistling over the wing mirrors of the car. There’s a kind of half-industrial, half-salt smell in the air. The young man shrugs, does up his shortie car coat and goes for help. Twenty minutes later he’s back, with petrol, or a mechanic, or a tow truck, and the couple are able to drive back to town. He’s quite pleased with how quickly it’s all been managed, but she doesn’t speak much on the drive back; and after that, she never speaks to him again. The reason, he’s astonished to hear through a third party, is that he was ungentlemanly enough to leave her unattended in a car for twenty minutes in a lonely place.

Not sure if I’ve made this up, or heard it as a pub anecdote so long ago I’ve forgotten the circumstances; or if I’m half-remembering a pivotal event from some UK Angry Young novel or film or TV production from the period? If it’s the latter and you recognise the source, please leave a comment below and put me out of my misery.

in the park

Obelisk on a base of eroded local stone. Several little gravestones commemorating Chumble, Coco, Bessie, Mollie, Porridge, pet names that could be equally for animals or people. “This must be where they buried the servants,” C says. Much of the stone in the park is laminated. Judging by the quarry in the bay at the north end of the lake, and the exposed rock in the cuttings, this is intrinsic & not much to do with subsequent erosion. It comes out of the ground wafery and brittle. From a distance, the pillars of the Ionic temple seem like ideal volumes; closer to they’re rippled, loose, falling apart into the same world as you. Leaden, coffin-shaped garden planters with a knot design, a rose design, their edges are battered, cut, used-looking. An empty plinth between yews. Walled garden: lines of ruined Victorian glasshouses; rusty iron curves; grubbed-up tree roots, charred looking and still clasping chunks of the glasshouse foundations two or three bricks on a side. Clee Hill slumps on the hot skyline, against architectural June cloud, while an unaccompanied Italian greyhound wanders disconsolately between the tables on the terrace and someone says, “I don’t like the smell of sweet peas, they’ve got an edge to them. Something musty underneath.”

“…the awful transmutation of the hills” –Arthur Machen

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mapping

Now the dust has settled I can see that my 70th birthday books haul includes: A Philosophy of Walking, Frederic Gros; Henk Van Rensbergen’s superb Abandoned Places; The Illiterate, Agota Kristoff; The Slate Sea, poems & photographs, ed Paul Henry & Zed Nelson; Britain & Ireland’s Best Wild Places, Christopher Somerville; Dusk, Axel Hoedt; and The Near Death Thing by Rick Broadbent, interviews with Manx TT riders. To help me navigate this complex territory I have in addition a 1930s quarter-inch map of North Wales & Manchester. I’m going to start by running Gros & Broadbent concurrently.

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.