the m john harrison blog

Category: predicting the present

ag wars

–take a slice of your commission–take a slice off everything–if you look where their depots are–it’s dog eat dog out there–the tractor business is a different one–it’s coast to coast–it’s about cleaning up the balance sheet–run it as a franchise then run their own stuff on the side–did some things you probably wouldn’t agree with–the way of the world–they do a lot of tractors–80 to a 100 tractors, about 3%–I say I can’t quite believe that–he figures the whole area’s running 6 or 7%–the whole market looks worse–it’s not good–suddenly ag machinery looks worse, right out to the coast–suddenly you are just way way outnumbered–

don’t ask

A reader will often ask: Mike, what are your greatest influences, in literature, pop music & elsewhere? Who are you a fan of? Readers, though I have lots of favourite authors I am not a fan of anyone. My greatest influence at present is the fiction of descent, ie any story in which it is slowly revealed (but not to the central character) that the central character is dead. I’m also quite interested in Anthony Powell, but mainly for his dry delivery.

where you really were

Insiders know everything about the thing they’re inside and deny everything that doesn’t suit them about what’s outside it. Contemporary insiderism is stickily mixed up with, and still owes its metaphysical base to, postmodernism: pressured, a contemporary insider is not only able to deny there is an outside, but also that there can ever be an outside. Knowing everything about the thing you’re in brings considerable status, although that’s hard to maintain when the bubble pops and you find out where you really were. The last thing you want to be then is an insider. Two generations have shown themselves this again and again but they won’t grow up and learn it.

stickies

(1) Gornal, Upper & Lower; also Gornalwood, an area of Dudley.

(2) Two crows chase a young hawk out of their airspace. The hawk peels off & flaps lazily away towards Wenlock thinking: why can’t these crows understand they’re yesterday’s bird? What is it they don’t get about the inevitability of change?

(3) David Copperfield always seems to have too many pasts. His present is an ongoing whirl of pasts. In the end he’s had so many contexts that we see him as quite modern.

(4) “As if it came from some other kind of enterprise.”

(5) When you’re reviewing my next book, you will make sure to ignore everything it’s doing then say it isn’t doing anything at all, won’t you? I should become anxious if you credited me with any kind of intent or consciously focused intelligence.

(6) Parents who seem to need their children as witnesses to (in increasing order of obscuredness) the parental life, the parental struggle, the parental myth or adventure, the primal scene.

(7) Love for Lydia isn’t about love between individual human beings, but about the love between classes. It’s about how that love–along with all its ties and boundaries, carefully binding attractions and even more carefully binding repulsions–was lost between the 1920s and the early 1950s in the UK. (& see this from Bevan, quoted today on Twitter: “How can wealth persuade poverty to use its political freedom to keep wealth in power? Here lies whole art of Conservative politics.”)

how we can know it

All journeys are enchanted.

It isn’t so much that the landscape distracts you, as that something about the motion of the train — something about the very idea of constant, rushing, forward movement — makes you restless and slow to settle to anything. You read a few pages of a book and look out at some swans on a canal. A newspaper opened suddenly just down the carriage sounds like rain spattering on the window. Another chapter and you make your way down to the buffet or the lavatory. Between each event a rev- erie pours itself, as seamless as golden syrup, as smooth as the motion of the train. You wonder what the weather will be like in Leeds or Newcastle, turn to the Independent to find out, read: “The world economy is likely to remain subdued.”

Looking up from these words to a landscape of hedges and ponds, copses and little embankments, the Ephebe sees with amazement a strange vehicle bounding along beside the railway line.

In a long, complex frame of metal tubing, suspended on four tractor wheels, are cradled: an engine wrapped round with copper pipes and sheaves of old electrical wiring; clusters of what seem to be household butane gas bottles; and, well to the rear, the padded seat of some old-fashioned military jet, into which is strapped a man. Gouts of earth and water spray up from its enormous wheels. From time to time this whole machine seems to be consumed by a kind of radiant discharge, through which its driver or pilot can be seen helplessly or furiously waving his arms.

Is he a prisoner of his vehicle? Or does he prefer to drive on the edge of disaster like this? He is a wasted old man. When it can be seen, his face runs the gamut of expression, wild with fear one moment, laughing with excitement the next. His long gray hair blows back in the slipstream. His lips contort. He has fastened himself into a tight brown leather suit along the arms and legs of which run clusters of Neoprene tubing. Out of these at intervals erupt thick colored fluids, which splatter over his chest or into his eyes. Though he blinks furiously, he suffers the indignity without harm: but wherever the machine is touched it blackens and smokes briefly, and lightning writhes along its chassis members.

One huge wheel flies off suddenly into the air. The old man claps his hands to his face. At that moment the train enters a tunnel, and the Ephebe can see only himself, reflected in the window.

If the appearance of the machine has filled him with astonishment, its disappearance leaves him with a curious mixture of elation and anger he can neither understand nor resolve. By the time he is able to unclench his hands and wipe his forehead, the train has left the tunnel for open plowland across which spills a tranquil evening light. Wrestling desper- ately with one another, the old man and his machine have passed back into the dimension from which they came, where they leap and bucket and belly their way forever through rural England, scattering clods of earth, steam, small bushes and dead animals. But in the palm of the Ephebe’s hand remains a small, intricately machined metal item, melted at one end to slag.

This he brings home with him. For months it remains warm to the touch, as if it had only lately been thrown out of the hearth of the heart.

–from “The Horse of Iron & How We Can Know It & Be Changed By It Forever”, 1988.

alchemical

Blake, Peckham and “the tree of angels”. The sheer willpower needed to envisage something. Even a memory has to be forced back into existence, and for all your effort what do you get? An artefact if you’re lucky, something not quite right in the corner of your eye. The exhausting effort to understand exactly what it is you’re trying to see. The exhausting effort to keep focus. The mad daily struggle against all the side issues that offer themselves. The struggle to keep the symbology intact/exact. I don’t care about anything else in writing now, as long as I get that part right. Everything else can follow along, rag tag and bobtail. Everything else is better that way any way.

niche operations

A paragraph of the new novel:

The only time Helen had spoken to him was when she caught him looking at the shrinkwrapped books in the chiller cabinet: “We’re a wholesaler, really. We sell on in bulk.” The self-deception of this was his introduction to the business; or to that side of it. From then on he would make two or three trips a week to similarly shabby premises–crystal shops, candle parlours, short-let niche operations selling a mix of cultural memorabilia and pop merchandise from two or three generations ago–which had flourished along the abandoned high streets of the post-2007 austerity. They were run by a network of shabby voters dressed in cheap business clothes, hoping to take advantage of tumbling high street rents–though their real obsession was with commerce as a kind of politics, a fundamental theology. They had bought the rhetoric without having the talent or the backing. The internet was killing them. The speed of things was killing them. They were like old-fashioned commercial travellers haunting decayed hotel corridors, fading away in bars and single rooms, exchanging order books on windy corners as if it were still 1957–denizens of futures that never coalesced, whole worlds that never got past the natal crisis. Men and women washed up on rail platforms and pedestrianised streets, weak-eyed with the brief energy of the defeated, exchanging obsolete tradecraft like Thatcherite spies.

a difficult time for everyone

If you’re in London on the evening of the 5th March & you’d like to hear me reading “The Crisis”, leave an email address here, or DM me at @mjohnharrison on Twitter–

Adolescence. West London. You always believed a hidden war was being fought, a war nobody would ever admit to. Lay awake at night, listening to bursts of corporate fireworks that seemed too aggressive to be anything other than a small arms exchange; while by day, ground-attack helicopters clattered suddenly and purposively along the curve of the Thames towards Heathrow. You held your breath in moments of prolonged suspense, imagining the smoke trails of rockets launched from the bed of a builder’s pickup in Richmond or Kingston. These fantasy-engagements, asymmetric and furtive, a kind of secret, personalised Middle East, left you as exhausted as masturbation. There was something narcissistic about them. A decade later, everyone was able to feel a similar confused excitement. With the coming of the iGhetti, everyone had a story to tell but no one could be sure what it was. Information was so hard to come by. Between anecdotal evidence and the spectacular misdirections of the news cycle lay gulfs of supposition, fear, and denial. People didn’t know how to act. One minute they heard the guns, the next they were assured that nothing was happening. One day they were panicking and leaving the city in numbers, the next they were returning but rumour had convinced them to throw their tablet computers in the river. The thing they feared most was contagion. They locked their doors. They severed their broadband connections and tanked their cellars. They avoided a growing list of foods. They clustered round a smartphone every summer evening after dark, eavesdropping on the comings and goings of the local militas as they scoured the railway banks and canalsides for telltale astral jelly. Were the iGhetti here or not? It was a difficult time for everyone.

the tale I tell myself

A sort of romance between vague people. Disconnected, surreal. End product of the liquid moderne not as it idealises itself but as it plays out on the ground. Two “lives”, interleaved transparent sets of events, never quite in themselves stories. First one floating on top then the other, so that as you see through one to the other they seem to be linked & completing (to the degree that completion has any meaning in the context). Underneath that the implication of some complex archaic interaction or myth, a default condition or haunting of the past & present which can only point to the future. Glimpses of a past & a future, also mysteriously imbricated, but even more see-through.

living in the future

There are futures everywhere. They’re at street corners. They’re waiting between the buildings of an old-fashioned industrial estate, the architecture of which hasn’t changed since the 50s. Or they’re waiting for a train in the middle of the day, in the empty middle of an afternoon, for something important to them but invisible to you. They’re in the provinces. They have a provincial nature, which is also invisible to you. They’re ordinary and self-similar. They’re not transparent. They have clothes, children, a job, or no job. They have ambitions. They’re a gesture, a posture, an item of baggage.

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