the m john harrison blog

Category: snow

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buried in exotic ground

Buggy tracks in snow. Spindrift blowing off the roofs. Silhouette of a labrador dog hauling the silhouette of a woman across Grove Road; detail from a Lowry of the West London suburbs. Meanwhile the van from Bathrooms At Source–a constant visitor to this pleasant street–ploughs its way responsibly towards the river, first-responder to the morning’s soft catastrophe. Everything is so hushed as he makes his way down! In Barnes, bathroom commerce, second only in religion to kitchen commerce, must go on. He’s closely followed by Bespoke Carpentry. Meanwhile, over in “Burma”, no crates of preserved Spitfires have come to light. Buried Spitfires! The very words are like a knell, awakening the British retroconscious to a deep sense of itself. The earth with which they turn out not to be compacted is the authentic dark chocolate of myth. We dream that Spitfires lie buried in exotic ground, the exact way they are embedded in our diffusing memories of empire. Meanwhile, perhaps the Spitfires dream themselves, in some half-world of suspended purpose, the trope of sci fi war machines made obsolete by time, waking too late. It’s the final reinscription. Ballard would have loved it.

snow

season’s greetings

From the staff & permanent residents at the Ambiente Hotel.

answers to a questionnaire

I came late to this “Questionnaire of the Weird”, but here are my answers:

1: Write the first sentence of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
“It was a Saturday afternoon, about 2:19.”
2: Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
2:19.
3: Look at your watch. What time is it?
2:19.
4: How do you explain this—or these—discrepancy(ies) in time?
There is no dispcrepancy.
5: Do you believe in meteorological predictions?
I think it’s weird you would ask that. You don’t even know me.
6: Do you believe in astrological predictions?
No, I’m not fooled by all those false-colour images of gas clouds, & Prof. Brian Cox calling it the “You-in-Ee Verse”.
7: Do you gaze at the sky and stars by night?
Not in London.
8: What do you think of the sky and stars by night?
I think they’re the last place God made.
9: What were you looking at before starting this questionnaire?
“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit; then my friend S’s face, in dark, impasto-looking tones on Skype, which made her resemble a Munch madonna. Munch’s madonnas are, as someone once put it to me, “the Anima on a stick” & a great deal weirder than anything wilfully weird.
10: What do cathedrals, churches, mosques, shrines, synagogues, and other religious monuments inspire in you?
“Inspire” is a bit like “gaze” to me, the way you’ve used it in Question 7 above. I don’t really get it.
11: What would you have “seen” if you’d been blind?
I don’t know. But there are plenty of things I would have missed seeing. Dogs. A girder. Two or three larks going up & down like elevators over some upland landscape. Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site. Windmills, linocuts, bees. A bus. A wrist. The list is endless.
12: What would you want to see if you were blind?
To start with, at least, I would want to see some indication that I wasn’t seeing: so, darkness, maybe, or like that. Weirdly enough, my cat went blind not long ago.
13: Are you afraid?
I have deep & constant anxiety.
14: What of?
I was afraid of the dark until I started night-running on moors & hills in the late 1970s. Once you become anxious about putting your foot down a hole in the dark & breaking your ankle, you stop being anxious about just the dark; the vague & generalised is replaced by the actual & practical. Now I’m afraid of the usual things, loneliness, pain, death.
15: What is the last weird film you’ve seen?
Scorcese, No Direction Home.
16: Whom are you afraid of?
I am afraid of everyone.
17: Have you ever been lost?
See answer to Question 9, but also I am an expert at it (see answer to Question 14). At least as much of an expert as Rebecca Solnit, although she is a great deal more articulate about it than me.
18: Do you believe in ghosts?
I don’t.
19: What is a ghost?
A ghost is content. It is subject matter, or grist to your mill.
20: At this very moment, what sound(s) can you here, apart from the computer?
Quite complex tinitus, left ear. A high-pitched whine, like the one you hear after a loud gig. Under that, a sort of hiss such as you might have heard from a valve radio knocked off-station in 1953. Behind that, quite a long way back, various bangs & rumbles I take to be the circulation of the blood, or perhaps a small unacknowledged war taking place a mile or two off in East Sheen.
21: What is the most terrifying sound you’ve ever heard: for example, “the night was like the cry of a wolf”?
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced terror. Certainly not from a sound. But I have a well-honed startle reflex, see answer to Question 13, & any high-attack sound will stimulate it.
22: Have you done something weird today or in the last few days?
No. But I have done uncanny things.
23: Have you ever been to confession?
No.
24: You’re at confession, so confess the unspeakable.
“Weird” is a word for a kind of content or subject matter I often visit, though I have no personal relationship with the weird now except to make metaphors. I went through a period when I couldn’t have HP Lovecraft on my shelves. If I had him on my shelves I would read him. If I read him I wouldn’t be able to sleep. The same was true of Arthur Machen, although it was never true of Robert Aickman because by the time I got to Aickman my life had steadied me down a little. In a sense, he’s too clever to be frightening; in another sense, something like “The Swords” is so uncanny that you know you are probably avoiding the issue so as to remain calm.
25: Without cheating: what is a “cabinet of curiosities”?
Perhaps it’s a cabinet in which you keep curiosities. Have you read “The Hare with Amber Eyes” ? It’s the history of 264 netsuke, displayed for part of their life in a cabinet in Vienna to show off the taste of their owner–to make their owner interesting by association. It’s been quite a bestseller but I found it, in the end, to be a sort of bland imitation of WG Sebald. Anyway, perhaps that’s what a cabinet of curiosities is: a place to keep the things which make you look interesting by association. Or comparison.
26: Do you believe in redemption?
I do, but I don’t know why. For me, redemption is like some aspects of the sublime: I try not to revisit or acknowledge them, in case I taint them with the anti-sublime.
27: Have you dreamed tonight?
I believe so.
28: Do you remember your dreams?
Not always.
29: What was your last dream?
I don’t remember.
30: What does fog make you think of?
I haven’t seen any really high class fog for a long time. The kind that, if it’s in a city, sets everything at one remove and makes it so interesting again; or the kind that, if it’s on a moor, you think: shit, which direction was I going in before this happened, see answer to Question 9 ?
31: Do you believe in animals that don’t exist?
Do you mean made-up animals ? Why would I believe or not believe in them ?
32: What do you see on the walls of the room where you are?
Skull Radio & Mexican Death TV.
33: If you became a magician, what would be the first thing you’d do?
I haven’t any idea.
34: What is a madman?
One of the people in charge of the asylum.
35: Are you mad?
All I’m sure of today is that I’m not in charge of the asylum.
36: Do you believe in the existence of secret societies?
It isn’t really necessary to believe in the existence of secret societies for them to exist.
37: What was the last weird book you read?
“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit.
38: Would you like to live in a castle?
Yes. I would also like to live in a beach hut.
39: Have you seen something weird today?
I haven’t. But I keep wanting to call you “darling”. For instance, in answer to Question 54 below, What goes on in tunnels ?, I wanted to reply, “I don’t know, darling. I’m so rarely in one.” Isn’t that odd ? I find it odd.
40: What is the weirdest film you’ve ever seen?
Do you mean weird ? Or do you mean Weird ? Anyway, I will always have a soft spot for the Brothers Quay’s Institute Benjamenta. I several times tried to watch it with a girlfriend when it first came out on DVD, but we kept having sex halfway through & I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the end. But it certainly looked weird.
41: Would you like to live in an abandoned train station?
Curiously enough, I addressed this question a year or two ago, here.
42: Can you see the future?
I can, yes, & it works.
43: Have you considered living abroad?
Once or twice.
44: Where?
Spain. Mexico.
45: Why?
Because they are warmer & more human than London.
46: What is the weirdest film you’ve ever owned?
Repo Man.
47: Would you liked to have lived in a vicarage?
Not especially.
48: What is the weirdest book you’ve ever read?
“The Flight from the Enchanter”, Iris Murdoch.
49: Which do you like better, globes or hourglasses?
I wouldn’t have any use for either. I don’t know what the weird has to do with the mildly bizarre or whimsical.
50: Which do you like better, antique magnifying glasses or bladed weapons?
I’d rather have a new magnifying glass if I needed one. I own an entry-level survival knife. I would like an ESEE-3MIL with a carbon steel blade & a sharpened back edge. But my favourite knife of mine is a 465 Puma Backpacker, circa 1980, which I have managed not to lose all those years. I climbed with a guy called Jeremy who used to be a butcher, so he sharpened everyone’s knives for them. Worried by a certain vagueness he sensed in me, he kept mine blunt.
51: What, in all likelihood, lies in the depths of Loch Ness?
A layer of very cold water.
52: Do you like taxidermied animals?
Sometimes. But I don’t find them weird, & I don’t find myself weird for liking them. Generally I try not to associate myself with things as a way of gaining some of their presumed eros, see answer to Question 25.
53: Do you like walking in the rain?
I don’t dislike it.
54: What goes on in tunnels?
I don’t know, I’m so rarely in one.
55: What do you look at when you look away from this questionnaire?
Mexican Death TV.
56: What does this famous line inspire in you: “And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.”?
Nothing much.
57: Without cheating: where is that famous line from?
Is it famous ? How inappropriate of me not to remember.
58: Do you like walking in graveyards or the woods by night?
Apart from Pere Lachaise, and the really unheimlich two-level cemetery on the A628 outside Tintwhistle, Greater Manchester, I can take or leave graveyards. Running in woods at night can be as entertaining as running on moors at night, especially in the snow. Although I have to admit I haven’t done it for a couple of years. Some woodland is almost ludicrously Aickmanesque: that patch under Rhinog Fawr, for instance, into which you descend if you follow the Roman Steps path all the way east.
58: Write the last line of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
“I wish I’d kept those old clothes.”
59: Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
2:19.
60: Look at your watch. What time is it?
It’s always 2:19 in here.

hunting the wren

12 o’ clock the snow stops & a wren comes out to pick about among the pale green monbretia shoots & new snowdrops along the base of next door’s wall, nipping & bobbing, posing tail-up like the wren on the old farthing. What could you emboss on a farthing to indicate it was the smallest unit of currency, now the wren has lost its symbolic function ? For those younger people who’ve never seen a wren, it’s quite a small grey-furred mammal the elongated rear legs of which give it an energetic, hopping gait. It has a striking coloured breast often described as “pink” or “roseate”, but in fact much closer to violet. The male is slightly smaller than the female, more colourful & less active. Wrens are quite solitary, but breed with enthusiasm in suburban gardens in late March & early April, rearing ten to fifteen “kits” in a litter. Predators include the magpie, or “English Parrot”. In the historical times it was a Boxing Day custom to hunt wrens & crucify them on small sticks.

i like snow

It’s been trying to snow all day, an effort which intensified suddenly about three minutes ago. Bigger flakes fall thick & slow. It has the feel of a phase-change. Everything goes quieter. The air seems fractionally darker. Spaces gain depth. The houses over the road recede but become somehow more solid, more delineated. The light complicates & recomplicates itself, reflecting from the surfaces of every falling flake. Nothing will be the same after this. I won’t pretend not to be elated. It’s the most tranquil, the most mystical time; the most transient however long it lasts. Snow falling at the end of the short winter afternoon. A bird, its grey silhouette vague & busy, is making heavy weather of it fifty or sixty feet up, tail flared, wings fluttering, slow progress. I can’t know how that feels, but if this fall continues I’ll wait for dark, put my Innov8s on, pick up my head-torch & go running in the woods. By then, they’ll be woods, not just a few acres of dissected scrub in an upscale suburb. They’ll be endless. The best snow I ever saw from a window was at Ferihegy airport, Budapest, in February 1991. The best snow I was ever in fell during a long winter when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. I remember struggling four miles along unlit Warwickshire lanes under very bright stars, between fluted tongues, volutes and gargoyles of snow where the wind forced spindrift through the gaps in the hedges. Some of these structures had begun to shift like dunes, or elongate themselves across the verges and into the lane. I was elated, moment by moment, very aware of myself as being alive in this landscape. My toes and fingers were numb. My breath was in front of me.