the m john harrison blog

Category: landscape

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



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.

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