the m john harrison blog

Category: lost & found

being somewhere else

Blustery wind & rain overnight, thumping on the windows, then strong sunshine scouring the housefronts along the curve of the river, transforming gable ends into blocks & triangles of light, investing an aluminium cowl, a sagging phone cable, the yellow registration plate of a passing Audi. A couple of crows parapent happily over the recreation ground, doing airpocket work, loosening up, breathing into their stalls & sideslips. Mornings like these are the only times Hammersmith can be said to have fresh air. Wind shakes the stationary water-drops on everything: a visual cue for being somewhere else, the best thing you can hope for in London. A morning like this the air seems transparent–-go on, laugh. At the same time you’re walking through a frictionless gel, in which mystery nanoplasmas have somehow slowed down the light. It’s cold on your skin. A morning like this you dream of waking up in Cornwall or Pembroke listening to the updrafts banging & bashing about the headland & knowing the next thing you’ll do is abseil to the wave-washed platform at Sennen or slither down the greasy polished limestone uterus that will eject you in one piece into the salt dazzle & sharp rocks beneath St Govan’s Head. Then the real day can start. Anticipation is a supersubstance. It’s the quantum froth under everything. It’s the only advantage of being conscious, when you come to think of it. Meanwhile, framed by a sash window across the street, I can see a single arm. It is ironing. It belongs to someone’s cleaner. The upper arm is parallel to the ironing board; the forearm and fist move the iron towards the body and away again in brusque smooth powerful strokes pivoted at the elbow.

–reblogged from Uncle Zip’s Window, February 28, 2007

the struggle to admit who you were

A quiet morning. I imagine I can almost smell the river. In the garden is a rose so old its best use is to prop up the exhausted, driftwood-coloured trunk of an even older lavender bush. Should I let the ivy grow up both? I like gardens though I don’t know anything about them. This one is dilapidated enough to absorb any effort. New things are naturalised quite quickly. In the beds & borders, bluebells, aqualegia, wild stawberry runners, monbretia, packed & dense around leggy rosebushes. Light falls in at a steep angle between the houses to be fixed by the new leaves of the roses, which show in curiously transparent autumn colours. Each border is edged with two courses of old & tumbled brick, overgrown with herb robert & dandelions. At the sunny end there’s a worn-down lapboard shed, white, windows fallen out. A vine over everything. I think about this when I should probably be reviewing a book. A car passes. A few aimless notes issue from the open window of the upstairs flat, then two chords repeated in an unsteady, clumping rhythm: one of Fiona’s pupils, trying to find her way around the keyboard. In the late 80s I was going to write an HE Bates-ish, VS Pritchett-ish story set in a middle class garden: Elizabeth (60-ish, calm, already in a kind of mild confusion about her life, resilient if a little put upon by her Thatcherite children) would discover exotic species invading a space originally based on the South Cottage garden at Sissinghurst. Global warming, you see. By the end of the story she would have quite taken to them. I didn’t write it because if you cross HE Bates with global warming & the welcoming of bizarre change, all you get is JG Ballard. (Now it’s too late. I’m 60-ish myself & I can see a parakeet here any time.) In my life gardens have always belonged to someone else. I am beginning to be less envious of this, instead just enjoy the spalled and bowed wall, the perfectly broken plant pots in sunlight. Then, between the warm eroded terracotta tiles under the garden bench, a yellow flower with each tiny leaf made up of three blunt heart shapes arranged to form a hexagon. I have no idea what it is; both leaves and flowers have a distressed look, Italianate, as if they were rag-rolled in Fulham in the early 1990s. The cat stops licking its paw & looks up in a brief acknowledgement of some bird’s moving shadow. When I was younger I thought writing should be the struggle with what you are. Now I think it’s the struggle to admit who you were. But I would invent a better past for myself now if I knew exactly how to assemble elements like these, especially without letting myself in to spoil them.

–reblogged from April 29, 2007. All these selections are from the short-lived Uncle Zip’s Window, which ran 2006/2008.

This character wants connection with others, he’s just inept at choosing them. He’s led by his own passivity. He ends up on the edges of other people’s lives and relationships, drawn there by the obsessive-compulsive cycles of his own personality. His favourite pretence is that before the story began, before he met you, he had a life. He had momentum, which he lost through no fault of his own. We see right through that. It’s comically self-deceptive. He leans towards the normal, he’s optimistic he can achieve it: what he doesn’t seem to understand is that any context will satisfy him, however grotesque. If he’s lucky he can settle in a temporary unstable orbit around people who don’t need him for anything. He’s of no utility. He’s damaged goods. He’s the drowned man, the text’s corpse looking for somewhere to wash up.

(First published last June as “Any Port In a Storm”.)

goodnight irene

thcmmttdmb1971-1A lot of moths flutter up when someone disturbs this. 1968, I was so disgusted with the first draft I gave it away. Still can’t say I love the contents, but I always loved the Hutchinson New Authors package and Chris Yates art, which allowed me to think of myself as a proper writer. Covers wouldn’t be so kind to me thereafter, not for a couple of decades anyway. [Image borrowed from Joachim Boaz.]

Oh, and how things do change. An argument which prompted shrieking hysteria less than a decade ago now seems to be an acceptable minority opinion…

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.

london by train…

…that metaphysical condition or stupid limbo which sucks in your life and jellies it and doesn’t get you anywhere, even if you fetch up somewhere in the end–late, full of rage, depressed, encircled by people whose casual shoes cost more than your car. Then the same meeting as you’ve been having the last forty or fifty years, at which you learn that nothing is possible. You’ll wish you never came. Still, you made your choices long ago. You rediscover that by the end of day. You come out the other side. You decide to cope. You even see the advantages–which means you can begin to maximise them, or so you hope. You look up at the How Late Is Your Train indicator. The thing is, you tell yourself, not to wait too long. Wait too long and eventually, if you aren’t careful, you’re going to end up looking really quite threadbare.

tidelines

DSCF5712For years I lived at the edge of the Sea of Artefacts, where great-looking stuff was washed up every day. People came & went: turnover was higher than you’d expect given the relaxed style, the constant good weather, the ease with which some sort of existence could be pursued. The explanation for that was, people took away the first thing they could carry & parlayed it into an income elsewhere. But the hard core of us hung on, out there shine or shine, throwing the small ones back, waiting for an item that would make us think. Our living structures glowed at night a hundred miles up and down the coast, their temporary qualities defining over the years a permanent aesthetic–whitened sticks, mirrors & rags, although to incorporate an Artefact would be considered bad taste as much as bad luck. Back from that, the hinterland was dark, maybe a little more threatening? There was poured cement there, you would have to talk yourself through the bars and blockhouses to get your item out to market.

hastings

Implacable calm of the water. No horizon line. Heat blurs the edges of the air before eight in the morning. Distant objects–hikers on the cliffs, seabirds on the harbour mole–seem too large. Everything like a film, wrapped in cameraman sublime, documentary sublime. Light, silhouettes, warmth like a perfect saturated colour, all at once. South coast as Salton Sea. Wandering dazzled between the net shops and the fish stalls, I read “locally sourced” as “locally soured”; later, have a dream in which I am a painting by Anne Redpath. My whole life has become lodged in a few daisies, some grapes in a bowl. As the dream progresses I’m in more and more paintings. Whole rooms of myself, whole shows, stretch back for years, done out in the chalky greys of degreased paint. All my objects look calm but raw. Everything seems deliberately unfinished, wilfully unseen (or as-yet-unseen). A kind of indoor weathering has taken place on every surface. Every morning the shore is full of toddlers who don’t want to go somewhere. They’re sitting down, they’re kicking their legs, they’re repeating the same couple of words fifteen times in a row. You have to admire their commitment. But eventually even these athletes of the self will find themselves reconciled to the understanding that nothing you want–or don’t want–fits your fantasy of it, leaving you free not to want anything any more.

–reblogged from 2012

speaking of ghosts…

…this notebook entry from 1993, first blogged in 2009, is seeing new traffic:

Ghosts, or fragments of ghosts, phantoms of partial vanished events, appear to have piled up in an old house until its new occupant, A, becomes sensitive to them. She is upset by a particular manifestation. She begins to track it down in local history records, piece it together. With each discovery, more of the apparitions in the house are brought in under the umbrella: everything begins to make sense.

Along with this comes an increased pressure on A to bring peace to the house: she feels that only she can understand what has happened–of course, it mirrors events in her own life–and that only such an understanding can “earth out” the psychic overload in the house. But one piece of the story–its conclusion–is missing: no local record can tell her what happened. She doesn’t know where to dig to find the corpse, the star-crossed lovers, the stolen birthright, or the evil object. A can’t right the wrong.

Balked, she becomes ill. In parallel, the hauntings become more horrific.

Worried all along by A’s skewed relationship to her house and its past, her friend B repeats the local history research, but across the whole life of the house. B discovers that the attempt to find a single historical explanation for the haunting has caused A to conflate events from two thousand years or more of occupation of the ground. The fountain of blood in the cellar comes from a different incident to the repetitive shriek in the attic. She has mistaken medieval manifestations for seventeenth century ones, children for adults, sex for murder, & strung them all together to make a story she cannot quite complete.

Once B has relocated each incident to its proper temporal place, he understands that the hauntings are not motivated. They are fragmentary, palimpsestic, meaningless. They are a record of habitation, not an explanation of the personal lives of particular inhabitants or a message to the future about some injustice so monstrous no one can have peace until it is righted. It is not the responsibility of the living to redress–or even facilitate the redressing–of wrongs in the past. The past is only the past: we do not owe it any guilt, we cannot even recognise anymore what constitutes it. The past is just some decaying, meaningless echoes. When we “learn” from it, all we are doing is rewriting it according to what we need at the time.

As soon as A understands this, she gets well. The hauntings stop. She has laid the past to rest not by understanding it but by consigning it to the past where it belongs.

a story of ghosts

The structure of the story, as it is engaged by the reader, should have a similar effect to that of discovering a puzzling selection of items in a container of unlabelled material from someone else’s life. The end of the story, instead of providing closure, tries to recreate the moment in which some fragments of evidence–which might not actually be evidence–flicker together to suggest the possibility of a pattern that might never have been there anyway. Glimpses of emotional meaning that shift with the light, framed by uncertain nostalgias. The sense of briefly understanding or failing to understand emotional states that you might, anyway, have invented. The aim of the writer is not to become an exhibitor of found objects, but instead to not quite succeed in curating that which might or might not have been there in the first place. There is, obviously, a politics to that. & it always produces, by definition, a story of ghosts, if not an actual ghost story.